A few weeks after the November 2016 election, I called Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek to get his reaction to Donald Trump’s astonishing victory. Earlier that year I had read Skowronek’s landmark 1993 work, The Politics Presidents Make, which spans American presidential history, tracing the roughly 40–60 year cycles of what he calls “political time.” First, a transformative or “reconstructive” president inaugurates a new regime (most recently, FDR and Ronald Reagan), that is succeeded by an alternating cast of regime-supporting “affiliates” (for FDR, Harry Truman and JFK/Lyndon Johnson; for Reagan, the Bushes) and “preemptive” regime-challengers (Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon; Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) who suggest an outline of something new, before the regime finally proves incapable of responding to new problems and collapses under the helpless watch of a “disjunctive” president, an ambivalent adherent of the party’s original orthodoxy (Jimmy Carter; Trump?).
You can and should read that conversation here. In a bewildering historical moment, Skowronek was remarkably lucid in applying his theory to the shocking event that had just taken place. He did not predict Trump’s victory, but as he reiterated when we spoke again last week, his analysis of past historical cycles suggested it was unlikely Obama would be able to hand off power to his chosen successor. He hadn’t done nearly enough to repudiate the existing Reagan-founded regime, much less to establish a new one. A Hillary Clinton victory would have defied Skowronek’s theory—or at least required a more complicated explanation than did Trump’s win.
What that more complicated explanation would have entailed has to do with the oft-neglected second strand of Skowronek’s theory. He calls this “secular time,” a term of social-science art referring to processes that are not cyclical but linear; they continue in a single direction over time. Skowronek is particularly interested in the growing power of the presidency—each occupant’s increasing ability to communicate directly with voters, bypass the gridlocked legislative process in favor of executive orders, and personally control the thousand-tentacled bureaucracy.
The “secular time” story also helps explain why, though all the pieces seem to be in place for Trump’s defeat this November—the final repudiation of a bankrupt Reaganism and the rise of a new Democratic regime—he could still win. Should Trump manage to hold on to office, it will be due to his use and abuse of these augmented presidential powers. Witness his attempt to bribe a foreign head of state to intervene in the 2020 election by opening a baseless investigation of a political rival or his brazen undermining of the Postal Service in a bid to keep opposition ballots from being counted. The catastrophe most of us refer to as “Trump stealing the election” can be understood within Skowronek’s centuries-spanning schema as the moment when the linear developments of “secular time”—the steady accrual of more and more power in the presidency—overtake the cyclical dynamics of “political time” that have otherwise held throughout American history. A transformative, regime-inaugurating breakthrough may not occur even when other structural conditions suggest it should be in the offing. What happens after that is anyone’s guess, though in our conversation, Skowronek offered a few.
We also discussed how Trump has resembled and differed from past disjunctive presidents (“late-regime affiliates,” as Skowronek sometimes calls them, who presided over the collapse of creaky, obsolescent regimes), and whether Joe Biden has what it takes to become an era-shaping leader who transforms American politics. Whatever happens, something genuinely new seems to be at hand. “We’re racing toward one of those classically American political flash points,” Skowronek told me. “We’re in the midst of a historic pivot.” His account of the past and present offers a few suggestive hints as to where we might end up.
Skowronek’s next book, Phantoms of a Beleaguered Republic: The Deep State and the Unitary Executive, will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2021.
In how he came to power, Trump is typical of a late-regime affiliate. He was a loner with unorthodox views. He had only tenuous connections to the dominant party and conducted a hostile takeover of it. He promised to save the old order from itself.
Usually, by the time you get to the fourth incarnation of a regime, things are tattered and in flux. But what we know about late-regime affiliates—Carter, Hoover, [Franklin] Pierce/[James] Buchanan, John Quincy Adams—is that they never fix things up. They enter office promising repair and rehabilitation, but instead they expose the regime’s serious vulnerabilities and drive a nationwide crisis of legitimacy. They have political impact as potent agents of change, but the change is uniformly implosive. They make it clear the old regime is beyond repair, and thus lay it open to direct repudiation as the very source of the nation’s problems.
We see this clearly in Trump. Again, it’s almost too perfect. He has alienated core constituencies, endangered political allies, and shrunk the party’s base. And now we have this devastating finale, the coronavirus pandemic, which has become a summary judgment on the entire Reaganite operation, laying the system open to total repudiation.
RK: How well has Trump defined or even understood his historical moment? How much has he controlled events rather than been controlled by them?
SS: I think that Trump thinks—to the extent that he thinks about it at all, or perhaps it’s just Steve Bannon—that this is a reconstructive moment and that he has the potential to take control and define American politics for years to come. And indeed it does seem to be a pivot point; an old regime is disintegrating and something new is forming.
It isn’t the case that late-regime affiliates in the past didn’t have new ideas. John Quincy Adams offered a completely new approach to government; Jimmy Carter thought he was going to transform the system. These late-regime affiliates have a sense that the old order is beyond repair and they have to do something. It’s not surprising, therefore, that we would see in Trump all these portents of reconstructive leadership.
But what do reconstructive leaders do? It’s not just that they implement a policy agenda. That’s secondary. More importantly, they build durable majorities, new parties, maybe with the same label but it’s a new coalition. And they dislodge the existing political infrastructure. This often takes the form of court battles, or in Jackson’s time the “bank war,” or in Lincoln’s time, obviously, the dismantling of slavery. They get rid of institutions that supported the politics and policies of the past.
On the face of it, that is what Trump is doing. He is building a new party, gutting institutions, even packing the courts. That looks like reconstruction. But can a president who is nominally affiliated with the dominant party of the previous regime reconstruct? History tells us no. Instead, they implode, and they bring the whole regime down with them. To me, it looks like that is what is happening. Yet I also see things that resonate with reconstruction: The old order has collapsed, and the question is: Who will reconstruct it? It could be Trump. If so, the reconstruction would be quite profound and systemic. That’s what everyone is warning about.
RK: You said in our 2016 conversation that Trump was more like Carter than Jackson, and if so, “Paul Ryan is Ted Kennedy circa 1978”—an intraparty challenger waiting in the wings. But of course no Republican contested Trump for the 2020 nomination, and Ryan retired from politics. What explains Trump’s ability to keep his own party in line, despite having ascended to office in large part due to his explicit repudiation of it?
SS: It’s astounding how the party has rolled over and the people who challenged him have retired. That gives me pause. Thinking institutionally and historically about patterns rather than personalities, I think we can attribute this in part to the gradual rise of presidentialism in America. That is, presidents have increasingly become independent political actors, effectively their own political organizations, and much less accountable to any collective project. They’re also less dependent on Congress to govern, and more able to do so through control of the bureaucracy.
With past late-regime affiliates, the bond of affiliation has been to their party, which holds them to the old commitments. But those bonds of party have weakened. We saw this in the Obama years with Organizing for America, or Organizing for Action, however many different permutations there were of his own machine. Trump has used Twitter to forge a direct relationship between himself and his followers; it enables them to follow him through every twist and turn. It also stifles alternative voices who previously could speak with authority about what the regime’s true commitments were. Instead of the party holding him to account, he holds fellow partisans to account by threatening to run candidates loyal to him in primary elections. That is a difference with Trump, and not an insignificant one.
It’s quite brilliant the way he has been able to pull Republicans along by giving them just enough to keep them in the fold—tax cuts, deregulation, judges. People want to say he doesn’t know what he’s doing, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s been quite impressive. Historically, this has been an almost impossible leadership position, and that makes his performance all the more remarkable.
RK: Following our 2016 conversation, I took comfort from your comment that after Trump a new Democratic-led political reconstruction would likely take hold, led by “somebody like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.” I even used the idea to console friends and family. But reading the interview now, I see you go on to suggest that the Democrats would have to come up with “something much broader than the current left alternative,” something more than “old-school left-liberalism…a totally different configuration.”
As you noted, earlier transformative presidents didn’t “just come in with the opposite of what was there before,” but rather “created this new thing that hadn’t been anticipated in the previous set of alternatives.” Does the failure to come up with a radically new alternative to Reaganism or New Deal liberalism explain the messiness of the Democratic presidential primary and the party’s eventual settling on the choice it did solely as a kind of default, a last resort? Or, the nominee aside, do you indeed see the beginnings of such a new regime taking shape on the horizon?
SS: You’re right that the Democratic Party has yet to articulate something beyond the opposite of Trumpism; Most of what they are offering is the same old, same old. And that is a serious problem for a Democratic reconstruction. Even if many of the policies that the party will be committed to look familiar—health care, student debt, and so on—something in the argumentation has to change. I don’t see that, and that is a liability for them. Mostly, the Democratic Party looks like a mirror image of the Republican Party: “They are against environmental protection; we are for it.” I don’t think Democrats have articulated a way out of that stalemate.
At the same time, however, we are seeing from the Sanders/Warren wing of the party serious talk about structural reforms that would alter the very terrain on which politics plays out. Not just policies, but changing the game. They’re talking about what to do with the Supreme Court, getting rid of the filibuster, admitting the District of Columbia as a state, passing a new Voting Rights Act. All of this suggests interest in building a kind of institutional bulwark that would be supportive of a new set of commitments. These structural reforms no longer seem completely beyond the pale; they are not being rejected out of hand or repudiated by the nominee. And those are just the kinds of things that could change the playing field of American politics.
Joe Biden is possibly the least likely reconstructive leader you can imagine, and yet I’m not giving up on him completely. A lot will depend on the size of the victory. In some ways, having a moderate with a reconstructive movement or coalition at his back is exactly where you want to be.
RK: To what extent do the prospects of a new Democratic regime hinge on the party’s ability to blame not only Trump for the country’s present crises and catastrophes, but the Reagan Republican regime more broadly?
SS: What distinguishes reconstructive leaders is their authority to repudiate—and to repudiate not just the previous incumbent but the old order itself for a failed and illegitimate response to national problems.
My question about Biden right now is why he is personalizing this. Why is he not attributing the failures of contemporary politics to a more systemic collapse of the old formulas? There’s a pressing need to rethink basic modes of the old common sense, to tag the Republican Party as responsible, not just Trump. This idea that Trump represents an aberrant moment of time, that we just need to return to normalcy, really squanders the opportunity at hand—the possibility of taking advantage of an implosion. That’s what worries me.
Even if Biden wins and the Democrats retake the Senate, you can’t force him to reconstruct. We’ll get to see his skill and ability to take advantage of the historic opportunity passed to him by Trump’s implosion. I can’t say automatically that he is going to be a reconstructive leader simply because he is in these circumstances. He needs to be thinking systemically, and I don’t know that Biden is, though there are hints every once in a while that maybe he is open to recognizing that the political world in which he grew up and made his mark no longer exists.
RK: You write in a chapter on Trump in the updated edition of Presidential Leadership in Political Time that given the president’s growing independence from party affiliation, we may be witnessing the “washing out” of presidential cycles and the emergence of a “perpetual political pre-emption.” What would this look like?
SS: Preemptive leaders are opposition leaders who come to power in resilient regimes. Take Bill Clinton. He is a Democrat in a resilient conservative regime. He comes to power and articulates this sui generis position: “third way,” not conservative or liberal but both and also neither, a “New Democratic Party.” It’s an idiosyncratic formula, and it’s attractive; preemptive presidents tend to get reelected. But the downside is that the alternative they articulate never sticks, and they never pass power on to a designated heir. The idea they offered in the moment just doesn’t have legs.
With permanent preemption, it’s harder and harder to reconstruct. If reconstruction is gutting the residual institutions of the old order, those institutions are becoming more resilient, harder to destroy. These days you can’t just destroy a central bank, the way Jackson did. Now it’s the backbone of an interdependent industrial economy!
We may already be seeing this collapse of the presidential cycles and a convergence toward the preemptive type: They arise, are fairly independent, they do their thing, but then the alternative they offer just disappears, because the next president comes along and offers a new one. There’s no durability, and thus no reconstruction. It’s a much more volatile world. It’s also not a particularly effective form of government, because no commitments are stable. Everything is up for grabs and uncertain.
I still think we’re a long way from that. What’s remarkable to me is that I’ve been talking about this alternative scenario, the washing out of political time, since the early 1990s. But this conservative Reaganite regime has played out remarkably true to form. The historical patterns seem to be holding. Trump is a late-regime affiliate, and I am beginning to suspect that all the complications are just noise.