Unlike Jimmy Carter, Trump has been remarkably weak. And that may turn out to be his salvation.

Using Steve Skowronek’s theory of the presidency, particularly his theory of disjunctive presidencies, I’ve been plugging the Trump-Carter comparison, as many of you know. It occurred to me this morning, however, on reading this quite astute piece from Matt Yglesias, that there may be an interesting flaw in that comparison.

Yglesias points out, and I think he’s right in ways that few people have grappled with, that in many ways, Trump ran well to the center of the Republican Party during the primaries. Trump promised not to touch Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid; he seemed chill with gay marriage; at times he praised Planned Parenthood; he ran against free trade; and he was a sharp critic of the neocon adventurism of the Bush Administration. Rhetorically; in the campaign. I’m not talking about how he has governed; that’ll come in a minute.

That kind of willingness to mix it up, to fuck with standard GOP positions, is the hallmark of disjunctive presidents. Carter did something similar during the campaign in 1976: he promised to scramble the New Deal coalition (particularly labor), to roll back the regulatory state, to take on welfare. As occurred with Trump, that scrambling of the map provoked a major backlash from the pillars of the party, and like Trump, Carter won the nomination and the presidency.

Oddly enough, one of the few people to appreciate how powerful and potent Jimmy Carter was in this regard—and to appreciate that early on in the wake of Carter’s failed reelection campaign in 1980, when the standard line was that he was a massive fuck-up and a loser—was none other than one Donald Trump. In Art of the Deal, Trump recounts a story in which Carter comes to him, asking for five million dollars for his library. Trump is dumbfounded—and impressed.

Until then, I’d never understood how Jimmy Carter became president. The answer is that as poorly qualified as he was for the job, Jimmy Carter had the nerve, the guts, the balls, to ask for something extraordinary. That ability above all helped him get elected president.

The reason candidates like Trump and Carter do this sort of thing is that they have a sense that the established orthodoxies, the familiar coalitions, are no longer working. Where candidates like Ted Cruz or Teddy Kennedy believe that the answer to a party’s dwindling fortunes is to double down on the party’s commitments, the Carters and Trumps know something (believe it or not) that their competitors don’t: not simply that the electoral majority no longer answers the party’s call, but that in its heart of its hearts the party itself is no longer where it once was. It no longer truly believes in the animating faiths of the regime. That’s what enables an ideological scrambler like Carter or Trump to slip through and win.

But here’s where Skowronek’s theory and the Trump-Carter comparison gets wonky.

As Yglesias points out, Trump in office has reverted to the conservative mean. He’s become pretty much a bog-standard Republican: going after Medicaid, trying to defund Planned Parenthood, budgets that look like they were designed by the Heritage Foundation (budgets that were in fact designed by the Heritage Foundation.) For all the white worker vanguardism, Bannon has mostly cooperated and worked with the free-market/Chamber of Commerce wing of the Republican Party.

More than that, Trump hasn’t done much of anything. At least not legislatively and not in terms of delivering on long-promised Republican dreams. Outside the Gorsuch ascension, which was engineered entirely by McConnell, and the deregulation that he can do on his own, without Congress, Trump has mostly been standing still. No repeal of Obamacare, no tax overhaul, no Ground Zero budgets, nada. At least not yet.

By the end of his first year in office, by contrast, Carter had so dominated the political field that seasoned pols like Robert Byrd and Tip O’Neill were marveling at his political prowess. The most commanding politician of the age, they thought.

Carter was constantly, and successfully, acting in ways that did scramble the political map: he did deregulate the airlines, trucking, oil, and banking industries; he did increase the military budget. Carter was also constantly, and successfully, acting in ways consistent with traditional Democratic Party ideals: he did create an Energy Department; he did create an Education Department; he did aggressively pursue conservation policies. That combination—of scrambling the political map, of carrying out longstanding liberal ideals—is what got Carter into so much trouble. The right hated him for his fidelity to traditional liberalism, the left hated him for his breach with traditional liberalism.

Trump, in office, has done the reverse. He’s reverted to the Republican mean, and outside his roll back of Obama’s regulations, he’s not done much of anything to advance that mean. Carter actually acted in the political field; when he did something like create a new administrative department, he did it with Congress. Trump hides behind the entirely executive powers of his office. He doesn’t scramble the political map.

And that may be, in the end, what protects him. That may be the one thing that saves Trump from becoming Carter.

In Skowronek’s theory, the cause of a president’s undoing—like Carter’s—is not that the president is weak or does nothing. It’s precisely that that president is strong and does something. For all his reputation for haplessness and weakness, Carter, as Skowronek shows, was remarkably powerful and potent as a leader. He really did undo the Democratic Party coalition. He really did set it on a new course. And that’s what he was most hated for. And why he lost the reelection.

Trump, on the other hand, has done the opposite. He has been, as a leader, not just domestically but also internationally, remarkably weak. And that may be his salvation.


  1. mark July 11, 2017 at 10:48 am | #

    A Conservatism that actually conserves its political position.

    Has that ever happened before?

    • Michael July 18, 2017 at 6:24 pm | #

      underlying assumption is that Trump might have believed his campaign positions.

  2. Paul Rosenberg July 11, 2017 at 11:00 am | #

    Interesting argument.Agree with most points. But Trump’s weakness may not save him for 2 reasons: 1) He may be impeached before 2020 rolls around, 2) disintegrative forces beyond his control. Failure may not fuel them as much as success would, but it won’t turn them back, either.

  3. Howard B July 11, 2017 at 11:11 am | #

    Did Trump come by this rope a dope strategy by mere or sheer chance? Further, to finish your thought, Trump is making himself useful to the Republican hard core in the Congress.
    And still one more thing, the brilliant thing about it is how his stalwarts in the bleachers perceive him as some Godsend whose by just showing up and opening his mouth has been Messianic in his output

  4. Chris Morlock July 11, 2017 at 11:25 am | #

    I love the comparison to Carter, it makes all the sense in the world. It was obvious to me during the campaign, but I was laughed at for saying so. It seems very logical to me that we exist in a time period similar to the 1970’s: the failure of the social state, unrest and economic problems, and the end of a 40 year era of American Socialism. Waiting on the “Reagan” to flip the US’s mindset to the free market.

    Now we exist in on the flip side of that, unrest and economic problems, the end of a 40 year era of Neo-Liberalism and Globalism, and an end to 40 years of free market corporatism and deregulation. Waiting on the “Sanders” to flip the US’s mindset to socialism once again.

    A good support to the pendulum theory, and one I totally support. The question is, why are “Liberals” fighting it tooth and nail? Why didn’t they embrace Trump as the ineffectual leader Carter was? Why do they continue “resist” nothing, and insist on hysteria to maintain power? It’s as if they were Republicans………..

  5. Larry Houghteling July 11, 2017 at 12:05 pm | #

    I don’t get it, Corey. How can being weak be Trump’s salvation? “What about the rest of me?” the poor wretched worked-over and laid out to moulder body of the US cries out?

    I think your analysis of what Carter really was — so different from what we usually remember — is fascinating. But never forget that for all the mistakes he made and all the people he riled, he almost certainly would have won re-election but for the crisis in Iran, which he had in a tiny way perpetuated by acting in an honorable way toward our old criminal-in-arms the Shah. If Carter had thrown Shah to the wolves, no problem. But Mr Human Rights was enough of a realist to understand that no nation’s hands are clean, and we’d better never give our goombahs around the world the idea that we can’t ever be trusted to stand by them.

    Trump’s salvation? What are you talking about? He plays footsie with Putin, he has a zero correspondence with normal ideas of the truth, his base are racist mugs encouraged to be more muggish, and his entourage are the very worst of capitalism, really sickening people, the kind of people if you heard your sister was going to marry one of them you’d have her kidnapped and “reprogrammed” — scum.

    It CAN’T be healthy for a country to have such people in charge, unless we rise up and drive a stake into the monster. Salvation? I trust that this guy is gonna have the biggest fall of all time. Maybe that will provide a little salvation.

  6. MKBrussel July 11, 2017 at 12:52 pm | #

    We shall see what Trump does with Russia, China, Iran, NKorea, Afghanistan, Syria,…, the budget. That will also determine his, and the world’s legacy.

  7. David Green July 11, 2017 at 12:58 pm | #

    Carter’s emerging neoconservatism (Zbiggy) bit him in the butt; Reagan exploited that–he could do it better in the Hollywood style. Carter’s emerging neoliberalism helped to foster the Reagan Democrats, perhaps related to the sliver of working class whites who tipped the scales for Trump.

    In any event, Reagan defeated Carter at his own game, and that’s the game we’ve had ever since. Trump’s initial positions were a different game, challenging both neolib and neocon conventional wisdom. But his beliefs, if you call them that, are of course shallow and easily manipulated, undermined, or forgotten.

    Carter failed in his audition for the ruling class’s neolib/neocon golden boy. Trump will likely fail in changing how we think of the political spectrum, from “left” to “right.” We will be stuck, for example, with the NYT defining Anne Applebaum as on the “left.”

    It’s too bad that “progressives” are so enraged by Trump that they deny these long-term ideological trends, challenges, and opportunities, however tenuous in the latter case.

  8. Thomas Rossetti July 11, 2017 at 1:50 pm | #

    More colossally wrong mined analysis from Corey Robin! Trump ran as the Law and Order president of the Right. He is Roy Cohn’s baby! Until he punches you in the face, what do you need to understand fascism?. He aims to be the president of Nixon’s forgotten Americans. Trump is burning the house down as I write this. You are the most woeful student of the Right I have ever read. With almost no respect, except the interest to see how far you can go in denying the obvious, I believe you truly have your head up your asshole.

  9. ronp July 11, 2017 at 3:06 pm | #

    Trump is a senile and stupid old man, otherwise he would realize he could track left and build a power base by proposing policies Democrats could support. There are plenty of white nationalist that would continue to support him, so what if the chamber of commerce leaves him – they have no one else.

    • Michael Fiorillo July 15, 2017 at 9:05 am | #

      I agree.

      While the odds of it happening are astronomically low, if Trump were to 1) provide something akin to Medicaid for All, and 2) legalize all immigrants currently in the country, while “walling” out further immigration (which, as a high school teacher of immigrant students in NYC, I think a majority of immigrants would support), he’d splinter the Democratic base and insure Republican control of the government for a generation. They’d get everything else they want: tax cuts, right-to-work (for less) nationally, an expanded police state at home and empire-building (or, rather, failed attempts thereto), and broad privatization of public resources.

      But they’re too greedy, and too vicious, and wouldn’t take the deal.

      Instead, the likelihood is that the Repugs will wait until Trump’s sell-by date has expired, impeach him, and come out looking like the saviors of the Republic. The Democrats, meanwhile, are hopeless.

  10. bob mcmanus July 11, 2017 at 4:59 pm | #

    “..just showing up and opening his mouth has been Messianic ”

    If we are trying to assess if Trump is a disjunctive President like Carter (Hoover? Have yet to read S) we should no look at what he hasn’t disrupted but rather at what he has. Trump has obviously disrupted the Presidential Spectacle, the last mediatized connection between voters and national politics in inverted totalitarianism. Yelling at the opposition has become dispiriting, outrage fatigue has set in, the contradiction between national dignity and the bozo in the Oval office has rendered us absurd along with him. He’s a freaking clown, we have a boor and idiot in the Presidency…and Trump is the absurdity? Some will play outrage, some will celebrate the nihilism, most of us will probably tune out and stop watching.

    Devolution. Work local and let the nation wreck itself.

    That’ll work for Trump fans. Hopelessness will lower liberal turnout, disgust will lower oversight. They’ll wear us down, but it ain’t just them. Yeah, I suspect Trump is a disjunctive President. God knows what comes after, but politics as spectacle is likely changed for a while. I suppose Gillibrand Booker or Harris could be reconstructive Presidents, and with a couple waves, Sanders a transformative. one. But I think we will be watching less Fox and CNN.

  11. Barbara Winslow July 12, 2017 at 8:44 am | #

    Carter paved the way for Reagan. Perhaps Trumpf will pave the way for someone more progressive? Only if we organize and act.

  12. Anon July 12, 2017 at 3:26 pm | #

    After Trump, the deluge.

  13. Will Boisvert July 13, 2017 at 1:53 am | #

    Why do you keep flogging the Skowronek theory? It doesn’t even let you coherently categorize Trump without sticking in contradictory qualifications and caveats, as here.

    The notion that presidencies can be usefully analyzed as cycles of recurrent types is moonshine–the irregularities of character, politics and history are far too chaotic. It’s political junk-science, weakly supported by cherry-picked data, with no predictive value.

  14. Thomas Rossetti July 13, 2017 at 10:57 am | #


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