The stunning 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency was decades in the making. Three trends since the 1960s created the conditions for his triumph. First, a growing popular discontent with government, long evident in public opinion surveys, created a widespread distrust of established leaders and institutions. Second, America underwent the rise of “professional government.” Governing professionals are an elite built on merit through occupational accomplishment. They now dominate interest groups, the bureaucracy, courts, institutional presidency, and Congress. Many government professionals perceive little need to mobilize the public in the way parties did in previous eras. This has furthered the sense of disconnect among the public and created a self-reinforcing chain. Third, political parties and governing institutions are now polarized into rival teams of ideological, partisan elites. Democrats are increasingly uniformly progressive and Republicans uniformly conservative. The intense battles between these divergent teams often result in government gridlock.
The three trends are mutually reinforcing. Distant government professionals help to fuel popular discontent. Polarized political warfare among political activists and governmental officials and the gridlock it produces spurs popular disgust with the squabbling and empowers professional governmental employees when elected officials create polarized paralysis. These conditions produce ripe opportunities for “outsider” candidates to mount popular movements against politics as usual.
How did Donald Trump leverage his outsider
status into a 2016 electoral victory? Four factors propelled him
into the White House. First, Trump’s long career as a public
celebrity gave him an identity and “brand” widely known to the public and which
generated massive free media coverage as a candidate. Second, Trump
and his campaign ably used social media to further amplify his
message. Third, decades of polarized political elites, governmental
professionalism and mounting popular discontent made an “outsider” message
attractive to millions of voters in 2016. Fourth, Trump was blessed
with a political opponent, Hillary Clinton, who represented the polarized and
professional governing class that Trump rightly saw as an inviting target for
his outsider message and demeanor.
That is how Trump happened. Our book by that title will be published soon.
Steven E. Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Todd E. Eberly is Associate Professor of Political Science at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland.
When voters observe a politician on television, they gather far more information beyond what the politician says. There are many telling visual messages sent by the politician’s facial expressions as well. That’s the main insight of Dan Hill, who has made a career developing and applying facial coding analysis – known as the Facial Action Coding System – to understand the emotions displayed by prominent entertainment, sports and political figures.
Issues of leadership are important for all Presidents – including those at Mount Rushmore.
United States presidents have found the exercise of effective leadership a difficult task in recent decades. For Obama and Trump, the impediments have proven numerous. To lead well, a president needs support or at least permission from federal courts and Congress, steady allegiance from public opinion and fellow partisans in the electorate, backing from powerful, entrenched interest groups, and ideological accordance with contemporary public opinion about the proper size and scope of government.
That is a long list of requirements. If presidents fail to satisfy these requirements, they face the prospect of inadequate political support or, as defined here, “political capital,” to back their power assertions. In recent years, presidents’ political capital has shrunk while their power assertions have grown. Trump and Obama are the latest examples of this pattern, which can make the president a volatile, frustrated player in the national political system.
What’s with all this presidential nastiness? Donald Trump issues scalding tweets about Gold Star families, Congressional Democrats and Republicans – even the NFL. It all reveals a person given to volatile and aggressive emissions of rhetoric. What sort of personality would produce such behavior in the Oval Office?
There’s little doubt that Donald Trump is a beneficiary of recent popular discontent with politics as usual and the established elites in Washington D.C., labelled by Trump supporter Newt Gingrich as “the swamp.”
Todd Eberly and I in our 2013 book American Government and Popular Discontent charted the rise of public disaffection with politics. We found two major trends, stretching back to the mid-1960s.
The State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota–the home state of author Steven Schier.
In the era of Trump, it’s easy to lose perspective on broader trends in US politics. While the national press obsesses about the president’s every statement or ill-advised tweet, it largely ignores the vital activity of the nation’s fifty state governments.
In mid-December, Donald Trump tweeted the following: “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of the water in an unpresidented act.” This hasty composition with the humorous misspelling actually suggests a crucial question: How unpresidented will Trump’s service in the White House turn out to be?
”Now that the election is narrowing to a two-person race, Donald Trump said he will have to get used to Hillary Clinton’s shouting. After hearing this, Bill Clinton said, ’You never really get used to it.'” –Conan O’Brien
Not, apparently, to Swedes. A prominent Swedish political scientist I know warned me not to use this one when addressing Swedish audiences about the 2016 presidential election. I recently gave lectures to audiences at Uppsala and Södertörn Universities and participated in a 2016 election panel before the American Club of Stockholm.
Two other jokes, the political scientist advised me, were OK:
Q: If Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are in a boat and it capsizes, who survives?
Q: What’s the difference between God and Donald Trump?
Barack Obama’s presidency has been a “clarifying” presidency. Obama’s big ambitions inevitably made him a highly polarizing figure for Americans, just as his predecessor George W. Bush, also a person of grand ambitions, had been. Like Bush, Obama led by acting as a national “clarifier” of differences between him and his partisan opponents.
2016 may well inaugurate a “new normal” in American politics. What exactly is new?
First, the politics of personal appeal has a new importance. Now, the “authenticity” of candidates seems to matter much more than anything they actually say or know about public policy or how they plan to govern. The current leading examples are Donald Trump’s plurality support among Republicans for the GOP presidential nomination and Bernie Sanders’ strong support in his competitive Democratic nomination race with Hillary.