Now to the second (and more interesting, I think) way to understand the 2016 election. Consider the stark difference in style between the Obama/Clinton team and Trump campaign — really, the difference between the idea of the executive as a rational manager and the idea of transformative politics in the form of “Make America Great Again” and “Drain the Swamp.” These two competing visions represents a fundamental tension embedded in the current design of the federal government.
My favorite political scientist Stephen Skowronek had this to say:
Look, the 20th-century Progressives really screwed up the presidency in the sense that they envisioned every president as a transformative leader. So they instituted primary elections, which gave us these idiosyncratic presidential parties not beholden to any collective. Instead, they are personal organizations which feed this idea of transformational leadership. But at the same time, the Progressives rebuilt the government to create this enormous management apparatus we call the executive office of the president. So now we also expect the president to be a rational coordinator of institutions and actions throughout this massive federal government.
The problem is that those two functions don’t necessarily go together very well. How can you promise to shake the system up, to extricate the special interests and transform politics, while also being a responsible manager of the state? In the 2016 election, we saw a choice between candidates who were essentially caricatures of those two views. Hillary Clinton was all about competence and management and rational decision-making, while Trump was all about popular mobilization and disruption. We already know this doesn’t work. I don’t think we can take that rhetoric at face value. We need to look at what presidents mean by transformation. The closer you look at what Obama was proposing in 2008, we see that he meant was forgetting about transformation in the Jackson/Reagan mode and replacing it with a rational, problem-solving government.
Americans themselves hold these two conflicting expectations: they expect presidents to be transformative figures who shake things up, who redeem American values, and they expect their presidents at the same time to be responsible stewards of their affairs. Presidents need to be both, but you can’t do both well. This problem is not going to solve itself. Tensions between responsible management and transformation are getting more acute, not less so. Our desire to have both is tearing the country apart.
To sum up: In the 2016 election, the economic woes of those without college degrees played a pivotal role. That Trump rose to power with many anti-Reaganite policy proposals (e.g. protectionism, infrastructure investments, and even universal healthcare) also illustrates how Reaganite orthodoxy is slowly crumbling. However, Trump's victory also signals that many Americans still want Jacksonian/Reaganite redemptive politics and not Obama/Clinton pragmatic rationalism. Elements of Reaganite orthodoxy remains powerful in the imaginations of voters.
Now the bureaucracy rebels against Trump. It has now been more than five months since inauguration and Trump has no legislative accomplishments to show. Yes, Trump’s administration is slowly eroding the ability of various bureaucracy to function through budget cuts and vacant leadership position. However, Trump’s authoritarian inclinations have also been seriously checked by the bureaucracy through leaks and insubordination. Think of Sally Yates. Think of the Jim Comey saga, which culminated in a full week of bad press and the associated fall in Trump’s popular support, as well as the appointment of a special prosecutor investigating Trump and his campaign. This is a relief. There was rampant fear after the election, especially in liberal/progressive circles, that Trump will bring banana republic authoritarian politics to the United States and severely damage democratic institutions through power grabs. This looks less likely in the wake of the Jim Comey saga.
That Trump and the “deep state” are battling goes back to Skowronek’s point about the difficulty of redemptive politics as Trump sold to the public. The administrative state that is the US federal government is enormous and entrenched. Trump promised to “drain the swamp” but in fact is too politically isolated to push forward any of his own agenda through either the bureaucracy or the legislature. He is letting the bureaucracy decay and shrink through budget cuts and unfilled positions, but can this last without something serious breaking? Meanwhile, Republicans, still stuck in their 1980s orthodoxy but increasingly subject to disparate demands among their constituents, are as yet unable to agree on any significant tax or reform legislation of their own. Will this coalition be further discredited by a continued inability to accomplish anything despite controlling all three branches of the government? Will there be additional mismanagement crises due to Trump? While I'm sympathetic to the view that the US government could use some slimming down and that the influence of special interest should be reduced, I also think poor management will also generate a whole host of problems. If the administration creates more problems, 2016 may be the last time the Reagan coalition will win power in a significant way. The most important legacy of Trump’s presidency may then be to precipitate the next period of US history.
What’s next? Currently the US legislature is gridlocked and dysfunctional. I view realignment is a necessary step to political renewal. While Reagan orthodoxy is slowly disappearing in the rear view mirror, it is unclear what new orthodoxy will replace Reaganism and how soon it will emerge. I see a fairly broad consensus in both parties that a combination of tax and regulatory reform incentivizing capital, infrastructure, and education investments will be good for the country. I suspect (and hope) such pragmatic and centrist ideas will prevail. There are a few interesting trends to watch as the Trump administration wears on.
Trump support holds steady? Trump's core support seems hardly damaged despite the obvious train-wreck that is the Trump administration since he took office. This is at once remarkable given historic norms, and unsurprising given why Trump won the presidency. While historically low among presidents this early in their terms, popular support for Trump remains substantial at 35-40%, and this is the key factor in determining whether Trump survives four years. I suspect the most likely scenario is that Trump's core support will not boil away quickly. His support will perhaps drop slowly in a series of escalating crises, including perhaps a mismanaged recession or foreign policy crisis, as well as the Mueller investigation.
Democrats squabble. The 2016 election laid bare internal fissures not only the Republican Party, but also in the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders’s economic populism gained a lot of steam during that time, and the Left wing of the Democrats continue to fight with the Establishment wing today. The power struggle can be seen most notably in the recent DNC chair race, which was viciously fought even though differences were papered over ex post. There are those who cheer on the rise of the Left, but I think old-school left liberalism is unlikely to gain enough support to become a dominant orthodoxy.
Hyper-partisanship. Another open question is the consequence of increasing partisan sentiments in the population. While politicians squabble and vie for power within parties, there has been an increasingly high level of party loyalty among voters in the past 20 years or so. Voters increasingly distrust members of the opposing parties and both parties have become more ideologically uniform. (See, e.g. Gentzkow 2016.)