Since the New Deal, presidential power in the United States has been based on the almost plebiscitary connection established with public opinion. Donald Trump is the first to play on the country’s divisions to reinforce his support.
Donald Trump defied all laws of political solemnity. It was thought quite likely that he would learn the institutions and necessary compromise. The champion of “The Art of the Deal” would certainly come around to a “business-like” pragmatism. But so far, Trump the president remains similar to Trump the candidate. The “Tweeter-in-Chief” is, now more than ever, unpredictable and outrageous. This assures him a certain success with his electoral base, which undoubtedly sees this as proof of “authenticity.” But his short-term strategy comes at a cost. The president’s popularity rating is abysmal; local demonstrations against his decisions are endemic throughout the entire country; his administration is barely established; clan fights are tearing the White House apart; Congress and the FBI are investigating potential ties to Russia; his legislative track record is null; and the Democrats are beginning to hope for an electoral victory in 2018. What does this unprecedented situation mean?
At an institutional level, Trump is on the defensive. One of the rare optimistic conclusions that can be taken from his administration’s first few months is that the system of checks and balances is working. By blocking the executive order forbidding the entry of Muslims from several Middle Eastern countries, federal courts appear to be the administration’s main barrier. But this grand gesture should not hide the fact that the courts – including the Supreme Court – are most susceptible to being changed by Trump, as indicated by the successful nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. It is in Congress that we must look for collective, and much more formidable, checks and balances. Are there members of Congress who are ready to assert themselves against the detriment of a weakened administration, who have an array of procedures at their disposal with which to render all executive orders unachievable?
The Trump administration’s relationship with Republicans in Congress is catastrophic. Yet, the post-electoral deal forces them to re-evaluate their mutual relationship and to establish one of trust, albeit an artificial one. And so for months, Congressional Republicans have shown themselves willing and lenient with respect to Trump, because they know they won’t be able to adopt any part of their platform without his help. Under the impetus of Mitch McConnell in the Senate and Paul Ryan in the House of Representatives, Republicans have done their best to help this president who, wrongly elected, is nonetheless one of them. McConnell, notably, has shaken all established tradition to try to pass health care reform, by avoiding all hearings and proceeding to a vote. Even after Charlottesville, Republicans have avoided overwhelming the president: After rhetorical condemnations, none of them wanted to magnify the tragedy by, for example, launching a Congressional investigation. These openings will follow them at least to next year’s midterm elections, as it would be suicidal for Republican representatives to have nothing but a series of conflicts with an administration of the same party. But the president himself isn’t making any effort. On the contrary, he criticizes all of his party’s officials (including McConnell), increases his inappropriate tweets, governs with mandates and doesn’t hesitate to join forces with Democrats.
Caught in a hostile environment, the president is also suffering from ideological illegibility. His campaign stirred the pot. By mobilizing populism on the left (protectionism) at the same time as the right (anti-immigrant), it has been an illustration of how the conservative cycle that began in the 1960s has exerted itself in a populism of denunciation and anger. Embodied in Trump, where provocative vulgarity reinforces ideological vacuity, this “cannibalization” of conservatism by populism is, however, not a novelty. During the 1964 presidential campaign, historian Richard Hofstadter denounced the “paranoid style” which was, according to him, characteristic of American politics. His essay was a scathing critique of the Republican candidate at the time, Barry Goldwater, whose campaign against the GOP’s (much more moderate) establishment was shocking. Democrats easily and successfully depicted him as an extremist, hostile to civil liberties, someone who would be impossible to trust with nuclear weapons. For Hofstadter, this campaign was one of anger, of white conservatives' hateful hostility, whose passions are exaggerated by suspicion and conspiracy fantasies. Just as many qualifying adjectives can be found to more or less describe Trump – a symptom of the profound crisis of the American right.
The resulting chaos should not hide the fact that he is using all the powers at his disposal to secure his political survival. The strong presidency inherited from the New Deal is based on the almost plebiscitary connection that the president establishes with public opinion in order to disrupt the “checks and balances” and impose his ideas. If since then, each president has built on this dynamic to gather the nation under his banner, Trump is the first to pervert it by playing on the country’s divisions in order to reinforce his support. In fact, he is also the first to clearly be in permanent campaign mode: His 2020 reelection committee has already been created. He is without a doubt the first to openly govern for his electorate alone, at the risk of reopening American society’s old wounds. Trump is worried about maintaining the movement that brought him to power. It’s just like how his distant predecessor Andrew Jackson (1828-1836),* whose portrait now decorates the Oval Office, illustrated for the first time the potential of the presidency to democratize the vote. Trump, also, illustrates how the presidency has mutated, but in a much different context: that of civic apathy or the omnipresent media, partisan one-upmanship, and private financing of an election, all of which feed the defiance of all those who feel abandoned. Trump is the result of this crisis and, in return, through his behavior, he feeds that same crisis. His hypermediatization, electioneering, and impetuous habits as president are not, for the moment, grounds for impeachment, but it does sustain the worst sides of American democracy.
*Editor's Note: Andrew Jackson served as president from 1829 to 1837.
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