Stephen Skowronek, a Yale professor of political science, published a book in 1993 called The Politics Presidents Make. Skowronek’s book examines presidential history from John Adams to Bill Clinton and proposes four categories that almost all presidents fall into: reconstructive, assumptive, preemptive, and disjunctive. As you can tell from the title of this article, Donald Trump likely falls into the last of these categories. Reconstructive presidents are those like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, or Ronald Reagan. These presidents reshaped political coalitions that then came to dominant party systems like the Republican Party’s electoral domination of the post-Civil War United States, or FDR’s New Deal Coalition that won eight out of twelve presidential elections between 1932 and 1976. These reconstructive presidents are followed by assumptive successors, either those handpicked like Martin Van Buren for Jackson or Harry Truman for FDR, or those who follow in their footsteps with their own accomplishments like James Polk or Lyndon Johnson.
Eventually the cracks in these coalitions begin to show and preemptive presidents enter the fray. These are politicians from the opposite party of the reconstructive president who take advantage of the fractured coalition to win elections. Preemptive presidents include Dwight Eisenhower for the New Deal Coalition and Bill Clinton for the Reagan Coalition, and as we’ll get to, Barack Obama, also for the Reagan Coalition. Finally comes the disjunctive president. The disjunctives are products of the reigning coalition rather than shapers of it. James Buchanan was elected at the tail end of Jackson’s coalition but proved unwilling and unable to stem the outbreak of the Civil War. Herbert Hoover benefited from Republican dominance of presidential elections post-Lincoln, but was unable to deal with the Great Depression effectively. Jimmy Carter was elected at a time of deepening national crisis at home and abroad, and his attempt to keep working-class whites and evangelicals in the New Deal Coalition gave Ronald Reagan the perfect opportunity to break Carter’s coalition and craft his own.
The Reagan Coalition, one made of Southern cultural conservatives and states rights advocates, Midwestern social conservatives, and Northeastern fiscal conservatives, has endured for forty years, but in the past ten years the cracks have begun to show. George W. Bush managed to tap into the Reagan formula by appealing to evangelical values and states rights, but also oversaw a presidency that became dominated by foreign wars, terrorism, and, gradually, illegal immigration. Bush’s success in keeping white working-class voters in the Republican coalition stemmed from his stances on the latter two issues, but also on his more moderate appeal on the federal welfare network that appealed to those who extensively used said network, an approach called “compassionate conservatism.” Eventually, Bush, Jr. ended his term with below water approval ratings due to the Iraq War and the Great Recession, teeing the ball for Barack Obama’s unique appeal to young Americans, minority voters, and disgruntled white working-class voters that propelled him into the White House in 2008. Eight years later, Donald Trump’s campaign, whether on purpose or not, found that Bush’s compassionate conservatism had found success by appealing to the real core of the Reagan coalition: populist voters, meaning those who were both socially conservative and fiscally liberal, especially when it came to providing services for those deemed “deserving.”
These populist voters, who elevated Trump to the top of the Republican primary in 2016, are in conflict with the Republican Party’s establishment and modern conservatism. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are finding that populist voters aren’t enthused by trickle-down economics like their donors are. That’s where Trump comes in. Trump ran in the Republican primary promising to preserve the social safety net and to take on powerful corporate interests, even if his actions in office now contradict this. When Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976, it was by managing to hold together the New Deal Coalition with an appeal to Northeastern and West Coast liberals while using his strong Christian faith as a bridge to evangelicals in the Midwest and the South. The same can be said for Trump, whose election in 2016 was because he managed to hold together enough fiscal conservatives and social conservatives, and bridge the parties populist-conservative divide. Only time will tell how well this manages to hold. Like Carter, Trump has had a distinct inability to pass major legislation through Congress within the first year of his presidency, thus far. Like Carter, Trump seems to be unable to keep his executive office in order with a consistent stock of personnel. Both ran amok of their party’s ideological orthodoxy and both encountered significant opposition within their party during the primary process.
So what will it take to make Trump a truly disjunctive president? This would require a reformation of America’s political coalitions, something that has not happened in forty years. If Barack Obama served as the preemptive president of the Reagan era, that requires an examination of his coalition. Obama’s coalition was largely made up of middle-class liberals, minority voters, young voters, and yes, white working-class votes, many of whom migrated from the Republican Party in the wake of Bush, Jr.’s presidency. Democrats will need to embolden and broaden this coalition to make Trump a disjunctive president. They will need to empower minority voters by fighting against all forms of voter discrimination that continue to plague the electoral process. Democrats will need to encourage young voters to turnout and vote like they did in 2008, that is to say out of enthusiasm and not out of spite for the other option. Democrats will also need to reach out to working-class voters of all races, not by abandoning civil rights issues but by elevating candidates with backgrounds that these voters can identify with.
So whether the Trump presidency’s next several years continue to be ones of disfunction or reconstruction, as if we didn’t need reminding of it again: these are historic times. Which direction that history takes we will just have to see.