Is Donald Trump the Great Disruptor? Probably not.
Trump’s campaign resonated for a reason. Debates framed during the Reagan Revolution have worn thin. Americans are growing impatient with the received terms of legitimate national government. But Trump appears to be struggling with the reset. In full view of the early fumbling, we should look more closely at the historical pattern of presidency-led political reconstructions.
The model dates to the 1830s, when President Andrew Jackson joined the creation of a new majority party dedicated to the willful elimination of institutions that supported the politics of the past. Trump sees a parallel. But the template cast during Jackson’s “Bank War” has become harder to follow as the range of interests incorporated into governmental affairs has widened and the institutional environment of presidential action has deepened. With each successive attempt, presidential reconstruction has proven a heavier lift. ...
Like Carter and Adams, Trump reached the presidency as a loner. All three found themselves in — but not part of — a long-dominant coalition. Each marginalized party orthodoxy and made their case instead based on some inimitable, personal capacity to put things right. Trump’s “I alone can fix it” echoes Adams’s “talents (and virtue) alone” and Carter’s “Why not the best?”
When the old order loses political purchase, the attractions of the loner-as-leader shine brightly. But such presidents have never been able to reorder national affairs. Once in office, they appear incompetent and in over their heads. Their disruptions characteristically drive the implosion. Reconstruction follows, but under other auspices.
Past patterns do not determine the future, but they do clarify the stakes of the game that Trump has put in play. A great disruptor who does not set a new standard of legitimacy will just pull things apart. By the same token, success in the follow-through will require more than just racking up some wins.
The Republican Party expects to deliver on old commitments. The Trump movement, an incipient coalition, is looking for an agenda of its own. That mismatch portends civil war in the Republican ranks. Even in the best of circumstances, a successful merger between these two coalitions would take political dexterity, policy creativity and a good bit of luck. So far, the administration has failed to brighten the prospects for success.