Is Trump another Carter?
Corey Robin is a professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. According to online CVs, he has majored in studying both Conservatism (from Burke to Palin), and Neoconservatism, and has minored in the failures of the New Left (neoliberals I suppose) in running the American Empire.
On his blog he admits to having expected a Clinton victory:
In the last chapter of The Reactionary Mind, I argued that conservatism, at least in its modern, twentieth-century American incarnation, had essentially succeeded in its goals. That is, it had destroyed the New Deal, had effectively stopped the civil rights movement, and had significantly slowed the feminist movement. Its great success was its defeat of the left. And because I understand conservatism as an inherently reactionary movement, as a movement that mobilizes against movements of emancipation on behalf of subordinate classes, I argued that its success would prove, long-term, to be the source of its defeat. We could already see the signs, I argued throughout the book, of this coming conservative crack-up. That was in 2011.
But in writing about the election of 2016, I was also influenced by Stephen Skowronek’s The Politics Presidents Make. In that book, which came out in 1993, Skowronek argues that presidents come into office not as sovereign creators of a new world, but as the beneficiaries or burdens of an established regime. That orientation to the regime—is the president opposed to or aligned with the existing way of doing things—plus the strength or weakness of the regime, gives us a sense of how a president might govern. My sense, based on my reading of conservatism and the George W. Bush presidency, was that the Republican free-market regime of Ronald Reagan was becoming weaker, and that Trump would prove to be the equivalent of the George McGovern of the right: that is, the most outré expression of the regime’s principles, at a moment when the regime has begun to decline in popularity.
So I was obviously wrong about Trump being the McGovern of the right. The question is why?
One possibility is that I was wrong about the weaknesses of the Reagan regime. Rather than being weak, perhaps it was strong, which would make Trump an ideal candidate for election. In support of that possibility, people will point to the widespread control the Republicans have over state legislatures today, though as I said at the time this McGovern issue came up, the Democrats also had widespread control over state legislatures in the 1970s, and their control over Congress, particularly the House, was legendary and long-standing.
Another possibility is that I wasn’t wrong about the weaknesses of the Reagan regime but that I was wrong about Trump. Unlike conservatives or Republicans, he was doing something different: he was populist, he was revanchist, he was racist, he was outrageous, he was a demagogue, he reached out to the white working class. He was, in other words, the expression of an utterly new formation, not captured by the nostrums of conservatism. For a thousand different reasons, most of which I explore in my book, I think that argument couldn’t be more wrong. Virtually all the things that people point to that supposedly make Trump not like your typical Republican or conservative are, from my point of view, the emblematic features of what it means to be a conservative. And nothing anyone has said has convinced me otherwise.
Robin continues these thoughts for N+1 Magazine in, The Politics Trump Makes, comparing Donald J Trump to, of all people, James Earl Carter.
Robin alludes to the theory that breaks up American government into six regimes:
1789 – 1800 Federalist regime: Washington, Adams and Hamilton make America an organized state.
1800 – 1828 Democratic-Republican regime: Jefferson, Madison, Monroe try to decentralize.
1828 – 1860 Democratic regime: Jackson led the populist wing of the D-Rs, the rest became Whigs.
1860 – 1932 Republican regime: Lincoln led a coalition of Whigs and anti-slavery Democrats
(Some insert a Progressive regime, starting with McKinley or Teddy Roosevelt)
1932 – 1980 Democratic New Deal regime: FDR promised two chickens in every pot.
1980 – 2016 Republican Free-Market regime: Reagan promised wealth would trickle into the pot.
Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR and Reagan were “reconstructive” leaders, “creating the terms and conditions of politics for decades to come.”
Later in a regime were either potent, “articulating” leaders, building on a still vital regime, or weaker, “preemptive” leaders, trying to overthrow a still strong regime. LBJ was the former; RMN was the latter.
As a regime fails, there may be a, “disjunctive” leader that attempts to keep the regime going. Like Carter, these are usually the most hated Presidents. Or, there will be a, “reconstructive” leader that begins a new regime. It might be that Obama was the final, “disjunctive” leader of the free market regime, which would explain why such an outwardly affable, reasonable man was so widely vilified for trying to please everyone.
It might also be that Trump will be “disjunctive.” Trump is officially of the same party as the current regime, but he has also challenged the deep state that supports that regime. Trump ran as a populist, but has stocked his cabinet with both members of the current regime and amateur billionaires that stand to benefit from Free-Market precepts.
We are now reaching the end of the fourth decade of the Reagan regime. Whether Trump will prove to be a reconstructive, articulating, or disjunctive President—that is, whether we are nearing the end, entering the middle, or about to double down on the Reagan regime—remains to be seen. Skowronek’s model is not predictive; it sets out possibilities rather than prophesies. Trump may launch a reconstruction or founder in disjunction, and over time the distinction between reconstruction and disjunction can begin to blur. The outcome will depend on Trump, his party, international events, the economy, and his opposition, both inside and outside the Democratic Party.
Which sort of President Trump becomes will depend on whether the neocon/neolib regime has figuratively, and literally, run out of gas. As I noted in a previous post, Andrew Bacevich expects Trump to be a transitional figure; what Robin would consider “disjunctive.”