Yes, Trump was a Weak President

Populists Must Understand Institutions and Power, or There is No Hope.

(This is a modified version of an essay I wrote earlier this year at Uni. I will not be including the response to coronavirus in this analysis. The essay is already long enough and discussing the response will add more confusion than clarity to this piece.)

In today’s uncertain political environment, questions of presidential power have become more and more prominent. Being able to understand the nature and scope of presidential power has only become more important over time, as the “center” of American political life has shifted continuously towards the presidency and executive branch.

We can trace many of these changes back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who generated a political revolution that put the President at the center of American politics, leading to a lasting profound shift in public consciousness.

From Lowi’s The Legacies of FDR (a chapter in his work, The Personal President: Power Invested, Promise Unfulfilled):

“Roosevelt…set its foundations and determined its initial directions. Roosevelt had pushed ahead politically on all fronts…[and] succeeded in achieving [his] goals through direct mass political methods - over the heads of Congress and the party leaders”

From Neustadt’s Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership:

“Everyone now expects the man inside the White House to do something about everything”.

With the presidency being so important now, it came as a shock to much of the “political class” when Donald Trump won the general election in 2016.

The word “disruption” comes up frequently; however, what would it mean to be a truly disruptive president? I think it is fair to argue that a president would need to be unusually powerful and/or transformative in order to be truly disruptive.

Now, we actually have resources to analyze whether or not Trump fits this mold. I will use three theories of presidential power to evaluate Trump’s presidency on a set of criteria to determine whether or not he is a powerful and/or transformative president. My criteria will be as follows:

  1. Is Trump an effective executive actor? In other words, is he capable of bargaining effectively (achieving his stated policy goals without giving up too much)? Can he convince others to act in conjunction with him?

  2. Has Trump fundamentally changed the makeup of the Republican Party for the better? Has he broadened its coalition? Made the party stronger institutionally? Or done anything else to boost the future prospects of the Republican Party?

I will use three theories to evaluate Trump’s presidency on these criteria:

  1. I will use Neustadt's theory of presidential power to evaluate Trump's effectiveness as a political actor in the role of executive

  2. I will use Barber's psychological theory of the presidency to evaluate Trump's personality and his suitability to the role of the president

  3. I will use Galvin's theory of party building to evaluate Trump's effectiveness at positively impacting the future electoral prospects of the GOP

By using these three theories, I will show that Donald Trump is, in fact, not a powerful and/or transformative president according to the criteria laid out above.

Neustadt: President as Supreme Clerk (and Why Trump Fails at this Duty)

When Richard Neustadt published his work Presidential Power in 1960, it was considered a major landmark in the field of studying the executive. Rather than focusing on institutional factors, Neustadt decided to focus on the President as an individual, and he came to a startling conclusion: for all the “formal powers” the President had, the President was a leader in form, but more of a clerk in practice

“A President, these days, is an invaluable clerk. His services are in demand all over Washington. His influence, however, is a very different matter. Laws and customs tell us little about leadership in fact”.

Neustadt would go on to define presidential power as the power to persuade which, ultimately, came down to the power to bargain:

“The power to persuade is the power to bargain. Status and authority yield bargaining advantages. But in a government of ‘separated institutions sharing powers,’ they yield them to all sides”.

Neustadt would explain five separate components/elements that help determine whether or not a President’s order would be followed. These can be described as an indirect measure of the President’s persuasion/bargaining capability:

  1. The assurance that the President has actually spoken (19-21).

  2. The clarity (or lack thereof) about the actual meaning of the President’s order (21-22).

  3. The publicity that the President’s order has; in other words, “compliance [with the President’s order] may depend not only on the respondent’s awareness of what he is to do, but also on the awareness of others that he has been told to do it”.

  4. The actual ability of actors to carry out the President’s order.

  5. The sense others have as to whether or not what the President wants done is his by right.

Before applying this framework to evaluate Trump, I should acknowledge that there are issues with Neustadt’s model. Michael Nelson briefly goes over this in his work, The Presidency and the Political System:

“Presidential scholars had long taken it as axiomatic that the American presidency is an institution shaped in some measure by the personalities of individual presidents…[but] this line of reasoning was the source of startling deficiencies in scholarly understandings of the office”.

While true, I believe that the framework put forth by Neustadt is, at the very least, useful for evaluating some facets of presidential power. Especially with regards to a “political outsider,” the ability to persuade strategic actors in politics to go along with their plans becomes paramount as it is significantly less likely they have built up networks of allies throughout government prior to assuming the Presidency.

I think even just a brief glance at Trump’s legislative record and his statements make it clear Trump is exceedingly weak at persuading others. The amount of times Trump has contradicted himself is astounding, making it difficult for any other actor to have assurance he has truly spoken in a final manner. Combine that with the fact Trump doesn’t appear to be very clear about what he wants, and his orders seem likely to fail as he generally doesn’t meet either the first or the second factors of persuasion power.

While Trump’s twitter allows him to go public with pretty much anything he wants, a lack of clarity about what he wants, how he intends to get it done, and whether or not his feelings will persist by the next morning all undermine his potential ability to use twitter in as advantageous a manner as he could. His orders appear to have little relationship to the reality of carrying them out (more on this in a moment) and there has been significant pushback against Trump’s orders on the grounds that what he is ordering is not his by right (one example of this being his multiple orders attempting to ban immigration from a number of Muslim-majority countries).

One significant example of Trump’s failures with persuasion has been in acquiring funding for his border wall with Mexico. First of all, the idea of constructing a massive wall along the Mexican border seems highly unrealistic and, in fact, almost no new wall has even been built. Furthermore, while one may argue that the funding was blocked by a filibuster, the filibuster was eliminated for other decisions (including judicial nominations), and yet, Trump’s repeated cries for ending the filibuster amounted to nothing, and even failed to convince many members of his own party.

So, while Trump has been remarkably vocal about “the Wall” and has even remained very consistent in his calls for it (fulfilling the first three factors of persuasion as Neustadt laid them out), he still fails to take into account the unrealistic nature of a border wall and that many people don’t think he possesses the right to make such an order.

Perhaps it is interesting to look at how poorly Trump’s performance has been compared to someone like Truman, even with regards to just Congress. From Neustadt again:

“One reason why Truman was consistently more influential in the instance of the Marshall Plan than in the steel case, or the MacArthur case, is that the Marshall Plan directly involved Congress. In congressional relations there are some things that no one but the President can do”.

And yet, even here, Trump fails to take advantage of these mechanisms. He consistently fails to use the resources given to him. And considering how important the President’s professional reputation amongst the “Washington class” is with regards to influencing how others make their own decisions, Trump’s failures here only set him up for continued impotence in the realm of policy.

Barber: Presidential Psychology (and Why Trump is Ill-Suited for his Role)

Now, as noted before, there are certainly flaws with Neustadt’s approach. As Nelson explained:

it “assumed that ideological purpose was sufficient to purify the drive for power, but… forgot the importance of character”.

While it is useful to examine one facet of Presidential power, and to demonstrate why Trump is neither powerful nor transformative in that facet, engagement with other facets of presidential power is needed for a complete analysis of Trump’s standing. Enter, James Barber. Barber’s theories on the psychology of presidents grants us a new pathway to evaluate Trump. Once again, this is not as much of an institutional analysis, as a personal one; however, I argue it provides a new perspective on Trump’s presidency compared to the one provided by Neustadt’s framework.

Barber’s work gained fame (and, later, notoriety) for the fact that his predictions about Nixon’s presidency were remarkably prescient. Certainly, there are flaws with using such a “personality”/ “character” measure, but, again, I argue it is an important component of a complete analysis of the effectiveness of any given President.

It is important to note that Barber’s notion of “character” is not exactly like the colloquial understanding of “personality,” but it is similar. Barber noted that there are two other components of personality besides character: worldview, and style.

In his theory, worldview is formed in adolescence and describes an individual’s “‘primary, politically relevant beliefs, particularly his conceptions of social causality, human nature, and the central moral conflicts of the time’”.

Style is formed in early adulthood and is an individual’s “‘habitual way of performing 3 central political roles: rhetoric, personal relationships, and homework’”.

But prior to both of these, developing in early childhood as a result of an individual’s relationships with their family, peers, etc., is an individual’s character. Barber defines this as “the way the President orients himself toward life – not for the moment, but enduringly”.

Building off of this, Barber presents four different types of presidential personality: Active-Positive, Active-Negative, Passive-Positive, Passive-Negative. He summarizes his delineation of Presidents into these categories as using two questions:

1.      “How much energy does the man invest in his presidency?” (Active vs. Passive)

2.      “Relatively speaking, does he seem to experience his political life as happy or sad, enjoyable or discouraging, positive or negative in its main effect?” (Positive vs. Negative)

Each of these four types of presidential personalities have their own way of going about their duties. Barber argues Active-Positive presidents are the best suited to be President, while the Active-Negatives, for instance, are “pathologically ‘ambitious out of anxiety’”.

Because I believe Donald Trump is an Active-Negative president, I will focus on Barber’s description of that personality type. Dean quotes Barber as saying that:

“The active/negative type is, in the first place, much taken up with self-concern,”  and “The active/negative lives in a dangerous world—a world not only threatening in a definite way but also highly uncertain, a world one can cope with only by maintaining a tense, wary readiness for danger. The prime threat is other people; he tends to divide humanity into the weak and the grasping, although he may also, with no feeling of inconsistency, idealize "the people" in a romantic way.”

            I believe it is readily apparent that Donald Trump is an Active-Negative president. First of all, he appears to be active on the job, even if that means just tweeting a lot, all of the time. Secondly, he does not appear to have a positive experience in politics; his political life appears deeply discouraging and negative. John Dean, counsel to President Nixon, agrees with my conclusion:

“His only enjoyment in the job is that it feeds his insatiable narcissistic appetite for attention, which is not the type of positive reinforcement and emotional reward Barber describes to be an active/positive”.

Furthermore, Trump’s actions are strongly self-centered, and he consistently invokes conspiracies and plots against him as the reasons for his failings. His division of humanity into different categories of weakness/impurity/immorality (ex: “liberal elites”, “the ‘good people’ from Mexico vs. the ‘bad’ others”, etc.) are all active-negative traits as well.

            Now, being an Active-Negative president does not necessarily mean one is not powerful and/or transformative. It is important to note that Barber claims Active-Negative presidents are more likely to take risks and end up in crises; in fact, he claims they all share the same trait:

“they persisted in disastrous courses of action…because to have conceded error would have been to lose their sense of control, something their psychological constitutions would not allow them to do”.

But there is a difference between a powerful/transformative Active-Negative president such as Wilson and a weak Active-Negative president such as Trump: Trump lacks the ability to persuade, or bargain with, others on a personal level, and he lacks the willpower and/or ability to reshape institutions in any meaningful way to support his current policy initiatives or to boost the future electoral potential of the Republican party.

            Barber and Nelson also discuss the importance of a president matching the sentiment of the public, and how this can be a factor in the power of the president (both directly and indirectly, by putting pressure on other actors in government). When it comes to Trump, it’s important to note that he came to power in an age of widespread dissatisfaction and disillusionment with government. As Roger Cohen put it in the New York Times less than a week after Trump’s 2016 victory:

“To give Trump credit, he had a single formidable intuition: That American anger and uncertainty in the face of the inexorable march of globalization and technology had reached such a pitch that voters were ready for disruption at any cost”.

Political satirist Jonathan Pie put it this way in a YouTube video about the election result: “they didn’t vote for [Clinton] because she offered no palpable change whatsoever”.

Trump as a candidate offered an outlet for that anger: a true outsider, not beholden to any special interests (or so he claimed), confrontational to party elites, and promising “real change” (a return to American excellence, bringing manufacturing back to the country, curbing immigration, etc.).

Regardless of how you feel about his platform, one fact is clear: Trump has widely failed in turning his platform as a candidate (to the extent he had one) into any kind of real policies. The border wall hasn’t been built. American manufacturing hasn’t broadly returned. The trade war with China and the scuttling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership have been two of the few “transformative” things he’s done. While candidate Trump presented, at his grandest, a potential for a significant realignment of the platform of the Republican Party, president Trump has delivered on none of this, and ended up being a largely impotent leader. His Supreme Court justices have been lackluster to say the least (although it should surprise no one given all three were Federalist Society corporate bootlickers - adherents to the Reaganite doctrine of continuing to transform America into the world’s strip mall).

Galvin: President as Institution Builder (and How Trump has Built None to Sustain a Populist Faction)

So far, we have only engaged with personal factors but perhaps the most important factor in determining whether or not a president has been powerful and/or transformative is the president’s ability to affect institutional change. For this, I intend to measure Trump’s effectiveness at supporting and building up any kind of populist faction in order to improve its future electoral conditions. For this analysis, I will use Galvin’s measure of party-building effectiveness. Galvin identifies six ways that a President can engage in party-building, which he describes as increasing their party’s capacity to:

  1. Provide campaign services

  2. Develop human capital

  3. Recruit candidates

  4. Mobilize voters

  5. Finance party organizations

  6. Support internal activities

            Historically, Republicans have engaged in more party building than Democrats according to Galvin, and this may be due to the fact that, from a demographic and coalition perspective, the Democrats have been in a stronger position for the majority of the past half century. As Galvin notes, presidential accomplishments are destined to be short-lived without durable majorities across all levels of government. So, if Trump is going to be considered a powerful and/or transformative president, he needs to have at the very least started building a meaningful set of populist organizations or continued to build up the Republican Party.

            Once again, candidate Trump presented a possible way to revitalize the Republican party. In some ways, he seemed to be another example of the growing wave of national conservatism throughout the West in the past decade. With proclamations (with few, if any, details) of bringing manufacturing back to the United States, punishing China for their currency manipulation, and cutting off the flow of job-stealing immigrants, Trump presented a major break from the fiscal conservatives that have dominated the GOP elite for a while.

It seems to follow that if Trump was a strong president that he would have been able to begin imposing this doctrine on the GOP. Perhaps he would have engaged in something like what FDR did to the Democrats in the 1930s: built an ideologically pure party, except this time devoted to national conservatism as opposed to economic progressivism.

But Trump has failed on all accounts of this. The only vestiges of his platform as candidate that ever made it into policy would be the backlash against free trade and globalization (and even here, it was only partial: see the recent H1-B handout in the GOP-controlled Senate). While meaningful in the sense that this is still a significant departure from the preferred policies of the business elites that still generally dominate the Republican party, it is not nearly enough to consider Trump “transformative” in any real sense of the word.

While it can be argued that Trump was handed an ossified and sterile party that couldn’t change if it wanted to, Trump came to power on a swell of populist anger and frustration that could have shook the foundations of the GOP and remade it into a newer party (with far better prospects for their electoral future).

Furthermore, Trump has been standoff-ish to other members of the Party who oppose him (without taking the steps to build any kind of meaningful “Trumpian” coalition in different levels of government) to the point that other party leaders feared that Trump may have adverse effects on the Republicans future political opportunities. While this did not play out (and in fact it appears Trump meaningfully improved the GOP’s electoral prospects), the failure to build populist institutions threatens to leave the GOP in the hands of the corporate bootlickers and neoconservative ghouls that have dominated it and plundered America for the last 40 years. Considering Trump’s failure to build any such institutions, I think it is clear that Trump is a weak president from both an individual and an institutional perspective.


            Through our analysis of Trump’s presidency using the theories of presidential power put forth by Neustadt, Barber, and Galvin, it is evident that Trump is neither transformative nor powerful. He has gotten very few of his policy initiatives passed (and barely any of those were his true “outsider” policies) and he has not done anything significant to build durable institutions that would sustain his populist position after he has exited the political arena. Considering all of this, I believe it is safe to conclude that Trump is neither a powerful nor a transformative president.

(This may be Part 1 of a two- or three-part series about what an effective populist would look like, both at a political and individual level, if there is interest.)


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