Political Time will tell

Trump’s turbulent first few weeks as President have many people guessing what will come over the rest of his term. However, it may not be as hard as it sounds to predict what will come after him.

According to Stephen Skowronek’s theory of political time, there are four types of Presidents, and Trump fits neatly into the type that tends to destroy old regimes from within, allowing new ones to be created. The legacy of the Reagan Revolution – small government, low taxes and unregulated markets – may be about to end.

Here are the four types of Presidents in Skowronek’s theory.

Transformative Presidents

They come into power when the opposition is weak, and replace the old regime with something completely new. For this reason, they’re often ranked amongst the greatest Presidents; think FDR’s creation of the New Deal or Lincoln’s abolition of slavery and victory in the Civil War. Their influence is felt long after they have left office. Modern example: Ronald Reagan, who created a new coalition which has made Republicans the dominant party to this day.


Articulative Presidents

They support the existing regime when they come into power, and try to continue its legacy while moving with the times. Modern example: George HW Bush, who faithfully continued Reagan’s policies


Pre-emptive Presidents 

This category is opposed to the main regime when they are elected so are forced to fight against it in subtler ways. They also lay the groundwork for overthrowing it completely. Modern example: Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, Democrats who compromised with Republicans to modest success


Disjunctive Presidents

The final category comes into power when the regime they support is weak. They try to hold it together but the competing interests in their party fractures, leaving a power vacuum, which allows a transformative president to come in and start the cycle again. They’re often regarded as amongst the worst presidents since they get little done. Modern example: Jimmy Carter, who wasn’t able to hold the Democratic party together and opened the door for Reagan.

Since Donald Trump is part of the dominant Republican regime, he could either be an articulation president or a disjunctive one. Will he successfully maintain their ideology or discredit it? Arguably, he fits far better into the second category, and here’s why.

Outsiders in their party

Just like Carter beat more established names to win the Presidency, Donald Trump came from nowhere to win – the powers-that-be in the Republican Party didn’t want him.

Reliant on personal skills

Disjunctive Presidents argue that all that’s need to maintain the ideology is effective management skills. Carter sold himself on his attention to detail, while Trump has promoted his business abilities. (Another Disjunctive President, Herbert Hoover, was also an engineer who was elected based on his competency.)

Poor relations with Congress

Carter famously scuppered his relations with Congress very early in his term by gutting many Democrat’s pet projects; as a result, he hardly passed any meaningful legislation, despite controlling both Houses. Trump seems to be in a similar position, with many Republican leaders denouncing him or distancing themselves. Although they’re working together so far, relations are far more strained than you’d expect.

Leading a fractured party

Just as the Democrats in the 70’s were tearing themselves apart with anti-war movements, the Republicans are split between traditionalists (small government, free trade) and populists (low immigration, tariffs on trade). Trump is leaning towards the later but Congress, led by Paul Ryan, are definitely the former. This will almost certainly lead to a clash of ideologies.

Skowronek writes that Disjunctive Presidents are the last gasp of their regime; they make it impossible for their party to win and open the door for their opposition to come in and make sweeping changes. Whether or not Trump fits this model remains to be seen.  Only political time will tell.


Jared Kushner, Bobby Kennedy and the history of nepotism

Donald Trump’s campaign was very much a family business, making frequent use of his children and other relatives. It makes sense then that he is attempting to bring his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, into the White House as a special advisor.

However, Democrats claim that this violates anti-nepotism laws. The idea is that politicians shouldn’t reward their family with well-paying posts once they’re elected. This makes sense – but many believe that the law came about not out of high-minded principle but simple revenge.

The instance of nepotism that supposedly inspired the law was John F. Kennedy’s appointment of his brother Bobby to the post of Attorney General in 1961. Like Kushner, Bobby had been closely involved with his family member’s campaign, and both were politically inexperienced. RFK had no legal experience, which his brother noted when he quipped: “I can’t see that it’s wrong to give him a little legal experience before he goes out to practice law.”

Bobby Kennedy became extremely influential in government, both carrying out his duties as Attorney General and advising the President. This brought him into conflict with the man who was officially the second most powerful man in the country, the Vice President Lyndon Johnson. (Allegedly, Robert had tried to cancel his brother’s offer to put Johnson on the ticket.) The two loathed each other, with Johnson once commenting: “I’ll cut his throat if it’s the last thing I do.” (This from people who were supposedly on the same side.)

Although Bobby had the upper-hand in their confrontations, this changed in November 1963. When the elder Kennedy brother was assassinated, Johnson immediately assumed the Presidency, and Bobby now worked for him. Johnson called Bobby right after his brother’s death, not to console him but to rub in the new power dynamic.

Their feud grew worse than ever, particularly with Bobby still serving in a role that Johnson believed he’d got thanks to his family connections. While some of JFK’s inner circle left, Bobby stayed on, as if determined not to let Johnson have his way. He felt that Johnson’s continually stole JFK’s legacy.

Bobby eventually left to run for Senate in 1964. Johnson still despised the entire Kennedy clan and worried that Bobby – or even his younger brother Teddy – would challenge him in future.

In 1967, an amendment was added to a bill (apparently at Johnson’s behind-the-scenes urging) which would prevent public officials from naming their relatives to posts. This prevented dynasties like the Kennedys from giving each other positions to help promote their career.

In the end, the amendment wasn’t needed for its intended purpose. Bobby was also assassinated in 1967 and Teddy’s Presidential campaign fell short.

There are a number of loopholes that might let Jared Kushner take his job. Some say that son-in-law is too distant to count under the relatives clause, while others have argued that the law doesn’t apply to the President’s own staff. Interestingly, as the parties fight it out over the legal wording, it seems that something hasn’t changed over the years – the law is still something to beat political opponents with.

Making History Great Again

As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by American political history. I read about politics as eagerly as others consumed sports. I devoured stories about Lincoln, FDR and Reagan, while others followed… and now my metaphor falls down, because I can’t think of any famous sports people.

No office looms as large over the American political landscape as that of the President. For over 200 years, everything the person in the Oval Office has said has been transcribed and meticulously analysed. As well as being the most powerful person in the world, they’re also arguably the most interesting.

You may not know this, but soon America will have a new President. His name is Donald Trump. Excitingly for history fans, he promises to govern as unconventionally as he campaigned. Countless books will surely be written about him, but for for the moment, we’re at the Ground Zero of history, watching as it unfolds live before us. For political geeks like me, that’s like four years of Christmas.

This blog will aim to track the unfolding events while putting them into context. Trump may be radically different to anyone who’s come before, but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn lessons from his predecessors. 

As we count down the days to his Inaugeration, I have a few recommendations to make which will hopefully wet your appetite. The first is John Dickerson’s podcast Whistlestop, which is transitioning from focusing on campaign curiosities to the question of Presidential greatness. His velvety voice, narration and insights really make it a must-listen. The other is The Twelve Caesars by Nigel Hamilton, charting the fortunes of the 12 pre-Obama presidents who have been the leaders of the Free World. It’s both detailed and covers a huge scope with wonderful writing.

Donald Trump will be sworn in on 20th January, however I’m sure I will have some posts before then. Thanks for joining me on this momentous and probably rather rocky ride through the next four years of history!