For now, I'm taking a break from the "Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead" series to talk about what political science can do to explain Trump. The first post in my Explaining Trump series talked about how party reform after the 1968 election was designed precisely to let someone like Trump win. Consequently, I compared him to history's greatest monster. No, not Hitler. This guy.
Understanding Trump, then, requires us to read Nelson W. Polsby's Consequences of Party Reform. Nelson Polsby is still right.
So, let's talk about the Carter administration. Mostly, people remember it as a failed presidency, and in context, one might be surprised. Carter had not only a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, but the 1976 election actually gave the Democrats 60 seats in the Senate. The previous year, the requirement to end a filibuster had been reduced from 67 votes to 60. Just in time for a 60-seat Democratic majority. Carter had a Democratic House majority, and his party held what was, in theory, a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. But he didn't get what he wanted. Why not?
The obvious structural point is that the Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate weren't exactly a bunch of Elizabeth Warrens. A lot of them were Southern Democrats, colloquially known as dixiecrats. Many of them leaned conservative, creating what was called the "conservative coalition" along with Republicans, large enough to block most liberal legislation.
But, wait, Jimmy Carter was a Southerner too! There's more going on here. One of the major problems for Carter's presidency was his inability to work, even with his own party in Congress. Polsby had an explanation-- he had no connections with and no history with national-level Democrats. His political career was isolated to Georgia, and his lack of connection to Washington left him unable to deal with a different set of people and a different set of norms, along with a complete misunderstanding of the nature of deal-making in Washington.
Pre-reform, such people couldn't get the nomination anyway. If party muckety-mucks chose the nominee at a convention, they wouldn't choose an outsider, so such people wouldn't be president. Post-reform, outsiders can win. They just can't work with Congress.
At this point, there is an old quote, prominently used in the central text on the presidency: Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power. President Truman's thoughts on a potential Eisenhower presidency were as follows: "He'll sit here, and he'll say, do this, do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating."
The key observation is that presidential power in this country is actually comparatively weak. A president unable to persuade Congress is a president who looks more like Carter than like Hitler. Trump fancies himself a negotiator. Really, though he isn't any more sophisticated a negotiator than Ellis. Mostly, he orders people around, and since he surrounds himself with sycophants, he is used to people doing what he tells them. Sound familiar?
Now, for what it's worth, Fred Greenstein wrote a book called The Hidden Hand Presidency, arguing that Eisenhower was a more effective president than Truman predicted, but not by ordering people around. If Trump is sworn in, will he go around telling people "you're fired!"?
There's history to presidents trying to fire people. That will be a topic for a future post.
Regardless, Trump can't fire an intransigent Congress, and he has no tools with which to bully them, regardless of how the assesses his own tool. s. Tools.
Hey, firing Members of Congress! I wrote a book about that.
Basic point from reading Polsby, then. Trump won't get along with Republicans in Congress. They already hate him and his one weird trick. That limits his power drastically. Elect him, and he will rage impotently at a Republican House and a Republican Senate who think of him as a crank, a con artist, and a bloviating idiot.
Trump won't be Hitler. He'll be Jimmy Carter. Nelson Polsby is still right.