Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump, Revisited

Consider this an update or continuation of an earlier posting arguing that when considering the political prospects for a heterodox president like Donald Trump, one might consider other recent heterodox presidents like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Under the Bill Clinton scenario, the president’s party and associated movement goes along (in varying degrees of reluctance) with a more centrist president, despite losses suffered by the party and a cloud of personal craziness, mostly from an aversion to the other side winning.  Under the Jimmy Carter scenario, the president’s party supports some of the heterodox positions at first, but relations with Congress ultimately deteriorate, contributing to a failed presidency and a change in the political direction of the country.

Pres. Trump has been in office for only a month, so it’s far too early to judge which type of scenario will play out here.  Nevertheless, it may be useful to mark out a starting point.

The current political environment provides a fair amount of evidence that a substantial segment of the right cares much more about what they’re against instead of what they support.  Half of Republicans see Vladmir Putin as an ally while Russia secretly deployed a new cruise missile U.S. officials say violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.  This seems like a party and perhaps a movement that will have plenty of tolerance for Trump and his issues — for now, anyway.

The administration’s relationship to Congress, otoh, seems to remain dodgy.  Trump’s legislative agenda seems to lag that of his predecessors.  The administration gently grouses that Congress doesn’t want to be told what to do… until it does.  Those on the Hill suggest they initially welcomed Trump’s benign neglect, but are paralyzed by the lack of any White House guidance on tax reform, Obamacare and infrastructure spending (the last perhaps being kicked into 2018).

Meanwhile, Corey Robin has written a lengthy comparison of Trump and Carter for the lefty journal n+1.  There’s plenty of interest to agree and disagree with in the article.  For example, Robin notes the generally declining vote share for Republican presidents from 1972 through 2016 without addressing the gains of Republicans at virtually every other level of government.

Robin’s observation that the general lack of prior government experience in Trump’s cabinet may hinder his ability to deliver the change he promised, however, is worth considering, even if the administration’s goal is to greatly diminish the administrative state.  Apart from the Carter example, when Pres. Reagan picked George Schultz as Secretary of State, the latter had experience that equipped him to anticipate and fight bureaucratic resistance within Foggy Bottom.

More significantly, Robin highlights that part of Carter’s dilemma was sitting atop a party that was in transition between the remnants of the New Deal and the influx of the New Left.

Today, Trump sits atop a GOP split between its coastal donor class, a bloc of supposed True Conservatives, and perhaps the sort of nationalists Trump’s senior counselor, Stephen Bannon, would like to make the dominant faction.

How this schism gets resolved has a fair amount to do with how many of the supposed TruCons are are amenable to Trump’s populist nationalism.  This cannot be predicted with any certainty, but the Carter and Clinton examples may yet be instructive.

Clinton and Carter are still considered heterodox.  The Democratic Party and progressivism more generally have continued their leftward trajectory despite them.  Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in part because she went from being perceived as one of the more left-wing influences in her husband’s administration to a retrograde figure by large segment of her party today.

Why did Clinton and Carter fail to fundamentally reshape their party?  One big reason is that progressivism is supported by an expansive web of institutions, including grassroots activists, publications, think-tanks and other organizations, all devoted to advancing a broadly New Left agenda (and increasingly a New New Left agenda).

Carter essentially had no such institutions supporting his agenda.  Bill Clinton had a few – notably the Democratic Leadership Council – which has since gone the way of the Dodo.

Small-government conservatives may find themselves with less power during the Trump era, but can take some comfort in the fact that movement conservatism has institutional support similar to that progressivism had to sustain them during the Carter and Clinton years.   Trump’s victories caused Tucker Carlson and others to declare these institutions a failure; in fact, they were blamed for not achieving a purpose for which most of them were never designed to fulfill (excepting the activists).

The fact that the GOP nominated and elected a heterodox figure like Donald Trump does not necessarily signal that the party has undergone a realignment or that the conservative movement is dead.  The United States and Europe may have reached a more nationalist moment, but there has been much less of a foundation laid to sustain that mode of politics on this side of the Atlantic.

The real questions are more along the lines of whether Trump will get involved in more state party leadership fights (he won in Ohio after several rounds of deadlocked voting). Or whether Trump acolytes can succeed in down-ticket races without his celebrity.  Or whether Trump is interested in creating – or coopting – the infrastructure of institutions that supported Ronald Reagan and have extended his philosophical and political legacy for decades.

Trump is getting the big ovations at CPAC today.  Whether and how much more he’s willing to do beyond flying a few miles in Marine One remains to be seen.

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