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  • Writer's pictureJulia Azari

For 4 years I've written that Trump was a disjunctive leader. Now I'm not so sure.

(photo credit: Ted Eytan)

The 2020 election has, for the most part, concluded, and we’ve entered the phase where, as anticipated, the 45th president, a sworn Constitutional officer in the United States, is refusing to acknowledge that he lost. What might be slightly more surprising – though not much at this point – is that top elected Republican officials seem to be going along with the president’s refusal to concede.

Understanding Trump requires understanding his relationship with the Republican Party, which I think is more complicated and multi-dimensional than it may appear. He came to the party as an outsider, but has been successful, in some respects, in consolidating its support. As I’ve noted before, Trump’s impact on the party’s political style has not been matched by his ability to really shape its agenda and issue positions. Congressional loyalty on votes conceals the ability of leaders like McConnell to keep Trump’s more controversial priorities off the floor. But when it comes to the president’s ability to align consolidating his own power with the power of the party, the GOP is the party of Trump.

The nuances of this relationship also matter for what happens to Trump’s legacy, and how observers think about his place in political history. I’ve written before that while Trump seems to best fit in the disjunctive category, as the leader who comes at the end of a political era, his presidency has some hallmarks of the other leadership types. His norm-breaking, dominance of the political environment, and influence over his party looks more like reconstructive politics. Impeachments and individualist claims are associated with preemptive leaders.

Skowronek’s writing about political time casts disjunctive and preemptive presidents as different kinds of outsiders, lurking on the margins of their own parties. Disjunctive leaders come in as the old party coalition is falling apart, and their outsider status allows them to briefly transcend factional disagreements and offer the elusive promise of something new. Preemptive leaders, on the other hand, come in from the non-majority party, often by accident. These are presidents like conservative (Bourbon) Democrat Grover Cleveland, “third way” Bill Clinton and “modern Republican” Dwight Eisenhower. They come to office in three-candidate contests, with a plurality of the vote, or – as with Eisenhower – by way of personal popularity. They borrow ideas and policies from the other party, never quite establishing ideological authenticity either way.

A key feature of preemptive presidents is that they are, as a result of their hybrid ideologies, usually understood in individual terms. These, importantly, also have been the presidents who got impeached or came close: Clinton, Nixon, the party-less Andrew Johnson. Nixon perhaps represents the purest example of the preemptive genre as a moral aberration; popular memory can easily isolate Watergate as a manifestation of Nixon’s personal paranoia and character flaws, even in the face of evidence about its structural origins in an unchecked executive branch. Ford’s pardon of Nixon reinforced the idea that the problem was the individual, not the politics that produced his presidency. Others are seen as interludes – Eisenhower’s two terms as a break in the continuity between the New Deal and the Kennedy/Johnson era, or Grover Cleveland, perhaps remembered only for non-consecutive terms in a long period of Republican control – rather than for the impact of his policies.

But that’s not how presidential politics works. Despite the seemingly accidental character of some preemptive presidents’ elections, no one becomes president entirely by accident. There are political constituencies, ideas and logics (that make sense to someone) behind every nomination and election. The ideas and decisions of Cleveland, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Clinton had an impact on the country, on the office of the presidency, and on people’s lives, even as they remain difficult to categorize within the party systems in which they held office. There are no forgotten presidents.

As post-2020 narratives shape up, Republicans and Democrats alike will have incentives to cast the Trump presidency as an accidental off-ramp from how the country usually functions. And that's not entirely false. Opponents of the president are ready to turn the page and begin a new era, and Democrats will most likely have to do that under conditions of divided national government, or narrow party control. It is tempting to focus on Trump as the main cause for the country’s woes, and paint him as a dangerous and immoral interloper. As he inevitably leaves office as the first one-term president since 1992, elite Republicans may also start to seek their distance, though this hasn’t happened yet.

Biden’s claim to a mandate from the election Saturday night promised to repudiate several features of the Trump era, including Trump’s political style, his rejection of core democratic values. These, along with the consistent racist and anti-immigrant actions and rhetoric of the administration, have formed the backbone of the argument that this presidency “is not normal.” But Biden’s statement also included a more subtle rebuke of more standard Republican positions – limited government response to crises in public health and the economy.

There are plenty of sources to explain how these things are related. The connection between authoritarianism and democracy deserves special attention, not only because it has been lurking within the Reagan Republican coalition, but because it has an even longer history than that. It’s notable that Biden mentioned addressing systemic racism in his victory remarks – and a nod to the possibility of treating the issue not as a problem with Trump, but with the system that produced him. There are no interludes.

At the moment, some elected Republicans are doubling down not just on their support for Trump but for this style of politics, casting doubt on the results and disparaging the legitimacy of the vote in places like Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Their challenges are ultimately unlikely to win, and perhaps paradoxically, they are binding themselves to his legacy and making his eventual defeat their own.

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