Three views of Trump

Three views of Trump
© Getty

As the calendar turns, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpCoast Guard chief: 'Unacceptable' that service members must rely on food pantries, donations amid shutdown Dem lawmaker apologizes after saying it's never been legal in US to force people to work for free Grassley to hold drug pricing hearing MORE approaches the one-year mark in office, it is a reasonable time to take stock of what has been one of the more dramatic years in American political memory. One year in, there is no more agreement about where Donald Trump fits in American history than there was when he took office. That said, one can break the schools of thought on Trump into three categories.

One school of thought is that Trump is merely the latest in a line of Republican presidents. If you look past the tweets and the scandals, his one major accomplishment is a tax bill that, in its reallocation of welfare to high-income individuals, will look very much like those passed in 2001 and 1981.

ADVERTISEMENT
Clearly, this is how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBudowsky: Pelosi can break shutdown stalemate GOP seeks to change narrative in shutdown fight On The Money: Shutdown Day 32 | Senate to vote on dueling funding measures | GOP looks to change narrative | Dems press Trump on recalled workers | Kudlow predicts economy will 'snap back' after shutdown MORE (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAs new Congress begins, federal-state connections are as important as ever Trump once asked Paul Ryan why he couldn’t be ‘loyal': book AEI names Robert Doar as new president MORE (R-Wis.) are trying to look at Trump. They ignore his extreme behavior and hope to use him to accomplish traditional GOP goals. This view is prevalent in much of the media coverage of Trump. It is also a position held by a number of academic political scientists and, I would guess, a fair chunk of the voters.

 

Another possibility is that Trump is what famous political scientist Stephen Skowronek called a “disjunctive president,” or presidents who “have affiliations with the old regime when basic commitments of ideology are changing.” Such presidents as Franklin Pierce, both John Adamses, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter come at the end of a period of their party’s dominance of politics. They are seen as such disasters that their eventual defeat leads to a new era dominated (usually) by the opposition.

In this case, the era of Republican dominance was begun by President Reagan and carried forward by both Presidents Bush. President Clinton (like Grover Cleveland or Dwight Eisenhower) was of the opposition party but forced to govern on the terms of the majority. Along these lines, President Trump represents the end of this period.

The third possibility is the one that, ironically, Trump’s most ardent supporters and detractors agree on (although they agree on little else). This is the belief that Trump is something different entirely than we have seen before — the “Disruptor in Chief,” according to one article. From the perspective of his supporters, Trump is an outsider who will change the culture of Washington.  His tumultuous first year is merely evidence of the tectonic changes he is bringing to the presidency.

From his detractors’ perspective, unlike both his immediate Republican predecessors and other disjunctive presidents, Trump is dangerously clueless, disrespectful of American institutions, uninterested in a legacy beyond personal aggrandizement. Although his presidency may bring huge changes, the nature of those changes is highly unpredictable and potentially dangerous (nuclear war, long-term damage to the rule of law and to American supremacy).

These schools of thought contain some overlapping possibilities. Trump’s presidency could end in an enormous scandal unlike anything we have seen and, in doing so, mark the end of the Reagan era. Or, he could add some modest conservative achievements to his tax bill that accomplish traditional Republican goals but still mark the end of the Reagan era.  

Yet, they also represent very different perspectives on this president. Few would argue against the proposition that Trump’s path to the presidency was largely unique. The question of whether his presidency is also unique remains unanswered.

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.