Trump: The Profit Unarmed

In the wake of the collapse yesterday of the Republicans’ effort to repeal Obamacare—let’s hope this really is the endgame of that effort—it’s time to re-up, first, this piece I did for the Times, just after the House Republicans’ effort to repeal Obamacare collapsed; and, second, this piece I did for n+1, arguing that Trump’s would be a spectacularly weak and ineffective presidency, along the lines of Jimmy Carter’s.

It goes without saying that it’s too early to celebrate, and now that McConnell has declared his intention to pass a simple repeal (rather than repeal and replace), we need to stay on the phones. But there is some reason to think, as Brian Beutler argued yesterday, that even though the House GOP came back after their defeat to pass different repeal and replace measure (one far worse than the one that was defeated), the only reason they could do that is that they knew it would not be passed by the Senate. Which turned out to be true. Likewise, it may turn out to be true that the only reason the congressional GOP could pass those Obamacare repeal measures all those years was simply that they knew Obama would veto them. Which he did. When brought face to face with the reality of their dreams, they continue to balk.

So let’s hope (and make sure): good riddance. As Irving Howe said of Irving Kristol: may he have a long life, and many many defeats.

Back to the Trump/Carter comparison: Since I first made it, there’s been a lot of resistance to it.

The most obvious reason for the resistance, particularly among Democrats, is that Carter has acquired a kind of saintly halo about him, whereas Trump is an id-driven immoralist. Even though I constantly point out that the comparison between the two presidents is structural rather than substantive (though Carter’s policies and politics were in fact a lot more conservative than people remember), something about the comparison rubs people the wrong way, as if I’m sullying the name of a good man.

But I think there’s actually a much deeper reason for the resistance. And that is that Trump and Carter play to our deepest archetypes of power and strength: Trump as the menacing fascist, Carter as the meek and mild-mannered do-gooder. That archetype pervades the political spectrum, for it rests on an ancient belief: that power and morality, power and ethics, are ever and always opposed.

So even on the left, which opposes Trump, there is a subterranean belief that that performance of his—which is so obviously a case, almost kitschily so, of the emperor has no clothes—is in fact really strength. Precisely because Trump is so transparently uninterested in morals. Likewise, there is a subterranean belief on the left that Carter had to be weak. Precisely because he was so transparently interested in morals.

The truth, funnily enough, is that while the Trump/Carter comparison continues to hold—holds up quite well, in fact—if we had to compare the two presidents, we’d find out, that as of this point in their presidencies, Carter had delivered far more, had transformed the national agenda far more, had acted and imposed his will far more, than Trump has. Carter was in fact the stronger leader.

But we continue to fear, in the face of all the facts, that Trump is. And not because Carter did good things (a lot of the things he did were in fact pretty terrible) but because, as Orwell saw in his essay on Gandhi, we like to think of our prophets as unarmed. We like to think that powerlessness is a virtue and power a vice—a dangerous delusion that feeds its own dangerous counter-delusion: that strongmen are strong.


  1. Deadl E Cheese July 18, 2017 at 10:01 am | #

    If we’re doing disjunctive Presidencies, a Trump/Pierce and Buchanan or a Trump/Quincy Adams comparison holds up better than the (already pretty good) Trump/Carter one. From a strict power-politics perspective, Carter played a set of terrible hands masterfully. He still ended up losing big, but Carter’s disjunction was nowhere near as politically destructive as Hoover or Pierce/Buchanan’s.

    Trump and his GOP are not only already in a tricky situation, but they’re also playing a poor hand like complete crap. The only thing keeping him afloat is the incompetence of the Clintonite opposition and the lack of a major governing crisis like a bungled war or recession. Then again, the Rockefeller Republican opposition to Carter was pretty bad and Carter had a relatively peaceful Presidency and his coalition still disjoined. So who knows.

  2. Rich Puchalsky July 18, 2017 at 10:03 am | #

    This is the election where, substantively and perhaps counterintuitively, the left has parted ways with liberalism in the US more than ever before in my lifetime. There are a large number of liberals who complain that Trump is holding the US up to derision, that he’s not staffing the government adequately, how will things get done, how will our allies trust us, will we continue to be an example for the world. Will the Empire’s trains continue to run on time.

    • Deadl E Cheese July 18, 2017 at 11:54 am | #

      Since we’re discussing this in the context of Skowronek, I don’t think it’s counterintuitive at all. It’s not made explicit in The Politics Presidents Make, but a hallmark of disjunctive Presidencies isn’t just that it ruins the dominant regime, it completely destroys the opposing regime. The Democrats didn’t die under Pierce’s disjunctive Presidency; the Whigs did. The McKinleyite faction under Hoover didn’t disjoin; the generations-dominant Wilsonite faction did. Similarly, while New Dealerism never quite faded after Carter’s defeat, Rockefeller/McKinleyism was permanently marginalized by Reagan’s victory.

      Similarly, if Trump is a disjunctive President (or the start of a disjunctive one-two punch, like Pierce and Buchanan) we shouldn’t expect the GOP to collapse; we should expect the Democratic Party to either collapse Whig-style or transform into something ideologically unrecognizable Wilsonite -> Roosevelt style. Lincoln would still see much of his party’s governing philosophy under Eisenhower and Nixon; Truman’s Democrats would be completely unrecognizable to Wilson, despite the time gap.

  3. Chris Morlock July 18, 2017 at 10:18 am | #

    Two oddball defections in the Senate, one from a middle of the road conservative and the other a tea partier, and the Left is claiming victory yet again. Boggles the mind that after a such narrow escapes from repeal and replace, all having to do with internal GOP politics, leads the Left to think that they are producing in terms of the “resistance”.

    ACA is very much broken, and all the problems now associated with it can be directly blamed on the Dems. Republicans can continue to shurg their shoulders and Trump can use it in the 2018 elections to primary the tea partiers, and the Left still has no power and no plan.

    Meanwhile Trump is Carter after 6 months, and he is “totally ineffectual”. These battles between differing levels of insanity among the Right don’t mean much when the Left has no idea what the next step is other than to sit and watch.

    • Deadl E Cheese July 18, 2017 at 11:46 am | #

      Liberalism and “The Left” are two different factions under the same label, much like the Goldwater and Rockefeller factions in the late 70s.

      Liberalism (the currently dominant faction of the Democratic Party) has pretty much no effective response to Reaganism. They ran the opposition since 1992 and have been shown to be unable to do the job. Their behavior since the election (continued appeals to the GOP suburbanite base, unbowed Clintonist economics, Russia hysteria, elite factionalism) makes any hope of dismantling Reaganism, even when it’s at its weakest in decades, a naive dream.

      Leftism, represented by the Sanders faction, IMO has the best shot at dismantling the Reagan regime. That said, I don’t think it’s going to be Sanders (age aside) who helms the reconstruction of the anti-GOP Party — which may or may not be Democrats.

      There’s a reason why CPAC 2017 spent much more energy opposing Sanders the faction than the Clinton-Obama faction.

    • Deadl E Cheese July 18, 2017 at 12:45 pm | #

      “ACA is very much broken, and all the problems now associated with it can be directly blamed on the Dems. Republicans can continue to shurg their shoulders and Trump can use it in the 2018 elections to primary the tea partiers, and the Left still has no power and no plan.”

      This is off the mark. The ACA is indeed very much broken, and thanks to the Dems, but the real mastermind is Reaganist ideology. Of which the slave morality of Clintonism is beholden to.

      But while Clintonism is the bastard child of Reaganism, Trumpism is the fraternal twin of Reaganism. So if the Republican Party responds to the systematic failure of the ACA by doubling down on Reaganism (which they seem in all likelihood about to do), they’ll only be digging themselves deeper.

    • Bill Michtom July 19, 2017 at 12:28 am | #

      “ACA is very much broken”

      The ACA is, on its own terms, functional.

      It is merely, however, the de jure form of the de facto for-profit health care we’ve had for decades, with some minor improvements.

      There is no reason for it to fail on its own terms, though. It just won’t provide affordable care for the majority of Americans.

  4. mark July 18, 2017 at 10:30 am | #

    ‘Speaking to Newsnight editor Ian Katz, Mr Blair said: “I accept now what if you’d asked me a year ago I’d have said is impossible – I accept is possible – you have to say in today’s world now, there’s been so many political upsets it’s possible Jeremy Corbyn could become Prime Minister and Labour could win on that programme.

    “I still think the surest route is through the centre.

    “For most of my political life I’ve been saying ‘I think this is the right way to go, and what’s more it’s the only way to win an election’. I have to qualify that now. I have to say, ‘no, I think it’s possible you end up with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister’.’

    (Rachel Roberts, Independent)

  5. fosforos17 July 18, 2017 at 11:11 am | #

    Weak and ineffective? Not on your life. You are stupidly looking at a “legislative agenda” when the real Pence/Trump agenda is REGULATORY DEMOLITION of every bit of protective consumer and environmental protection. The method is executive orders and appointments–never anything that can be challenged or voted down. To them nothing else, nothing else at all, matters. It is all a show, like the “Russia” nonsense, to keep you and the rest of what they call “The Left” distracted from the real predation going on.

    • Rich Puchalaksy July 18, 2017 at 11:19 am | #

      I’ve seen Reagan-era and Bush-era regulatory demolition, and the Trump admin is no more competent at that than at anything else. In addition, if there’s one thing that the nonprofit left-liberal groups have left, it’s people with long training in how to resist and slow down regulatory demolition. Clearly it’s going to happen in part, but it’s not going to be this “every bit” sweep.

    • Corey Robin July 18, 2017 at 11:25 am | #

      With all due respect to your greater intelligence and perspicacity, if you can’t comment on here without being rude to me, you won’t be allowed to comment. You’ll notice, I’ve struck out the offending word here. I’ve written multiple times on the regulatory dimensions of Trump’s rule. You’re not telling me anything I don’t know. I do however disagree with you that that is all that matters to them.

    • Chris Morlock July 18, 2017 at 11:44 am | #

      As opposed to what exactly? You mean continuing the “deregulation” the demo presidents have enacted over the last 40 years? They all deregulate, Trump is nothing new. Pretending that any political party in US politics doesn’t seek the same exact goal is the height of ignorance.

      • LFC July 18, 2017 at 6:02 pm | #

        @C. Morlock
        The Trump EPA has taken steps to roll back Obama’s power-plant emissions regs. (“the war on coal” was Trump’s campaign terminology) and some water regs., among others.

        “After more than six years of review, President Barack Obama announced on November 6, 2015, his administration’s rejection of the fourth phase [of the Keystone pipeline]. On January 24, 2017, President Trump signed presidential memoranda to revive both Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. The memorandum is designed to expedite the environmental review process.”
        (from Wiki article on Keystone pipeline)

  6. Howard B July 18, 2017 at 11:17 am | #

    Corey, how long will it take for the Republican Congress to turn on Trump? One more point, does your model require or offer a granular reading of events on a micro level or is it just big picture? You could argue that so long as Fox stands behind Trump, the party won’t buck

    • Deadl E Cheese July 18, 2017 at 11:39 am | #

      If the Republican Congress behaves like past dominant regimes in disjunctive Presidents, as long as Trump more-or-less aligns with their agenda they straight-up won’t. No matter how badly Trump’s image gets tarnished by scandal or incompetence.

      If Trump decides to buck the establishment, like Pierce and Quincy Adams and to a lesser extent Hoover did, that’s when the knives will come out. But even if they replace Trump the person if gets unlegislatively tarnished enough, they will never turn on Trumpism (or more accurately, Reaganism) itself until well after the last train leaves the station. How long did it take for Republicans to decisively reject the McKinley model after FDR? 20 years? How long did it take for Democrats to reject New Dealerism after Reagan? 12?

      The big reason why #TheResistance and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign is/was ineffective is their obsession with GOP defectees. They should be focusing on reconstructing the anti-Reagan coalition, not making ineffective appeals to people deep in the heart of the base of Reaganism.

      • Howard B July 18, 2017 at 11:54 am | #

        Yes. Tell me however how the Republican establishment would treat Trump is he scrapes off their hold of the House and Senate?
        Yes Trump is an extreme and mock (not quite the right words, sorry) version of Reagan, but surely Reagan would disavow Trump, don’t you think?
        I mean Trump is an exaggeration of Reagan and Goldwater as if he were some kind of performance artist

        • Deadl E Cheese July 18, 2017 at 12:00 pm | #

          “but surely Reagan would disavow Trump, don’t you think?
          I mean Trump is an exaggeration of Reagan and Goldwater as if he were some kind of performance artist”

          This is a grievous misunderstanding of Reaganism that’s particular to Clintonites, or more to the point people who view politics through the lens of Clintonism. This thought process is why Corey Robin said (quite insightfully IMO) a few months ago Obama was pretty much the last person qualified to speak about the conservative mindset. It’s also why the Clintonite faction is not going to effectively oppose Trumpism even with its manifold weaknesses.

          • Howard B July 18, 2017 at 12:20 pm | #

            Thank you, I wish we had time for you to explain your point of view to me in full. You’ve put some thought into it, To be able to see through the veil requires time and effort. I’ve just lived through the past thirty years without exactly being a political junkie. I guess I’m reacting to how cartoonish Trump is in style, almost out of a Christopher Marlowe play. I think it may be taking a common political bent to an absurd extreme.
            But please correct me if we disagree

    • fosforos17 July 18, 2017 at 11:44 am | #

      I gladly retract the offending adverb. But really, how can an administration be anything like “weak and ineffective” when its central agenda is proceeding with full speed and power–and would not be slowed in the slightest even were Trumpe-l’oeil to be defenestrated and replaced by Pence under Article II or Amendment XXV?

      • Chris Morlock July 18, 2017 at 11:47 am | #

        Are you referring to Obama or Bill Clinton, I can’t tell. Hint: they all deregulated. That’s the purpose of American politics, to dismantle the New Deal, which it has done lock step since Reagan with no exceptions.

        • Rich Puchalsky July 18, 2017 at 12:32 pm | #

          Well, no. If it was all deregulation all the time, we’d have none left by now. If you look at the actual regulations under attack, some are FDR-era — although Democrats already helped to destroy many of those — some are Nixon-era and have to do with the large environmental laws, some are Obama-era.

          The whole concept of “deregulation” is, itself, a GOP frame. Elites want regulation that favors large businesses. Sometimes that means re-regulating.

  7. Eric Apar July 18, 2017 at 2:40 pm | #

    If Trump is Carter, what does that make the Sanders movement? I’m often tempted to draw parallels between Sanders and Goldwater, but if Sanders emerges at the point of a regime’s collapse, that analogy isn’t quite right, since Goldwater emerges either at the New Deal regime’s apex or at the beginning of its decline, depending on your perspective.

    It’s also tempting to cast Sanders in the role of Reagan in ’76, the representative of a rising force challenging an opposition establishment in a crumbling regime (an opposition establishment that had reconciled itself to the dominant regime, even as it tried to chip away at it). But that’s not quite right either, since Sanders seemed to represent the beginning of something rather than the culmination of nearly two decades in the political wilderness (beginning with the Goldwater campaign).

    This strikes me as an interesting historical question in its own right, but it also highlights a disjuncture between then and now that should probably give leftists pause: namely, that the Right was prepared to take the reins when the New Deal regime collapsed. I’m not sure that the Contemporary Left is in the same position.

    • Deadl E Cheese July 18, 2017 at 3:21 pm | #

      I don’t think that having a pre-existing movement is really all that important for a reconstructive regime. Indeed, compared to Jackson, Jefferson (whom I don’t think is reconstructive, but w/e), Lincoln, and FDR Reagan’s reconstruction was the outlier because it had been cooking for decades rather than being more-or-less forged a year or two before their election. Heck, Jackson and FDR’s regimes were observed to be more-or-less a full-throated continuum of the Adams’ and Hoover’s regime.

      Hell, Skowronek explicitly noted in The Nation interview that it was unlikely that the Trump replacement regime was going to ideologically look much like Sanders’ coalition in 2015/16. Sanders brings a lot of the things to the table, but I still think that it’s too indebted to Clintonite (and by extension, Reaganite) thought to be a real reconstruction. I’d think that Sanders 2016 would be able to temporarily break political gridlock, but only in the sense that Obama 2008 did.

      That said, I’m not counting Sanders out explicitly. I’m just counting out Sanders 2016ism. 1928 FDR had little difference from Hooverism would find the political philosophy of 1936 FDR completely unrecognizable. If Jackson and Quincy Adams had switched places (such that Jackson had squeaked by and was indebted to Clay’s faction) history would probably have continued in much the same way with Jackson being a disjunctive President and 1828 Quincy Adams repudiating Jeffersonian politics in most of the ways 1828 Jackson did.

  8. Thomas Rossetti July 18, 2017 at 3:09 pm | #

    For God’s sake can’t you just let Carter have a bit of the mantle of principled that is associated with his fundemental decency. Trump is a menace whose ultimate damage is still anybody’s guess. But a MENACE!

    • Eric Apar July 18, 2017 at 3:18 pm | #

      The point is not to attack Carter. The point is to situate our current political moment in historical context–specifically, to understand how presidents who represent a political regime in decline adapt to shifting political terrain. In Carter’s case, that regime was the New Deal regime; in Trump’s, it’s the Reagan regime. The claim is an analytical, rather than a normative, one.

  9. xenon2 July 18, 2017 at 3:11 pm | #

    The ‘left’ wants impeach Trump.
    Have they thought it through?


    • Eric Apar July 18, 2017 at 3:19 pm | #

      What do you fear from a Pence administration that you don’t also fear from a Trump administration?

      • xenon2 July 18, 2017 at 5:38 pm | #

        Pence believes in ‘first strike’.
        Trump doesn’t and when he
        heard that, Trump corrected

        We are talking about nuclear

        • relstprof July 20, 2017 at 3:22 am | #

          Wat? Trump is the chaos agent making it all gridlock. That’s everything. #alwaystrump in this situation. Let the Rs suffer their incompetence.

  10. Len Seifert July 18, 2017 at 3:20 pm | #

    I’ve browsed the comments and no one seems to have taken issue with your statement that Carter did a lot of terrible things. Can you remind me of a few?

  11. Thomas Rossetti July 18, 2017 at 3:35 pm | #

    Now that I have looked at the comments I realize how much this is the “politics of mammon”. Hey folks, Millions of Americans are freeer to live there lives than they ever have been. The subjugation of women and gays in society was an enormous burden. Deregulalation of that area of social life, was that the Reagan model or was that liberalism? Is sucombing to racism and xenophobia even an issue in your half baked one dimensional analysis? What I miss is the rather sick absence of any real liberalism in your account of the recent past in America. Are you all living in the dark inverted pyramid of Sheldon Wollin to the point that you simply can’t see the enormous social gains that have been accomplished. Just a new version of the Futilitarians.

    • Eric Apar July 18, 2017 at 3:54 pm | #

      I don’t personally know the people who post on this blog, but I’d venture a guess that not one of them who offers sincere posts (as opposed to trolling) would characterize the expansion of women’s rights and gay rights over the past few decades as anything other than an unalloyed blessing.

      We all recognize and celebrate those advances, most of which emerged from coalitions of leftists and liberals alike. (I’ll let you decide which of those contingents deserves more credit, but before you do, go back and take a look at where today’s liberals were on the issue of same-sex marriage in the early to mid-2000s, before it was cool. It’s not a profile in courage.)

  12. b. January 31, 2018 at 6:39 pm | #

    Let us recall: Carter was the original sponsor of the Taliban, and by extension of Bin Laden.

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