Political Leadership and Political Parties in the Age of Trump

John Kane. Social Alternatives. Volume 36, Issue 3. 2017.

President Donald Trump, according to New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, is fashioning a new model of leadership, one that struts and seethes and whines and consigns traditional leadership virtues to the junkyard of the quaint. Who, he asks:

among the presidents of the last half-century has been so publicly cavalier about conflicts of interest, so blithe about getting away with whatever grifts he could, so lavishly mean-spirited and so proudly rude? Who among those presidents made so little concession to decorum? (Bruni 2017).

Trump’s ascendancy is certainly unprecedented in a modern developed nation, but what does it mean for America and the world, and what does it portend for political leadership in general? Is Trump a sui generis phenomenon whose rise and fall, when it happens (and bookmakers have been laying odds since Day One), will seem like a bizarre anomaly once normalcy returns and we awake from our nightmarish dream? Or does he herald a new normalcy, a reshaping of the old political world into one whose lineaments and consequences we can yet but dimly perceive?

To tackle the Trump leadership phenomenon at an early stage of his presidency is clearly perilous. The target is not so much moving as in chaotic convulsion. And yet I believe it is worth examining the larger meaning and context of his rise and the challenge he presents to contemporary political understanding. There seems broad agreement, after all, that Trump is merely the American exemplar of a more general trend, and that the many instances of political disaffection and upheaval around the world are rooted in the recent historical trajectory of the global political economy.

To begin understanding Trump, then, it is necessary to place him in this wider, global context. This means understanding the severe challenges that long-established political parties and their leaders have confronted in managing, or failing to manage, contemporary economic crises. We must then outline how the crisis of parties has been historically manifest in the American case, which in turn provides the context for assessing the rise of Trump and the brand of leadership he offers. Intrinsic to this analysis is the crucial difference between political leadership in an institutionally complex democratic system and the kind of business leadership upon which Trump prides himself. Having thus understood Trumpism within political parameters both broad and narrow, we will be in a position to make some brief assessment of the likely fate, not just of T rump himself, but of the whole American party system.

Theoretical and Ethical Failures

The political world is undoubtedly in a very strange place, with long-standing verities up-ended and long-established parties everywhere in disarray or decline. Democracy itself seems in retreat in Eastern Europe and Turkey. The only certainty seems to be the prospect of continuing uncertainty. The proximate origins of all this lie in the financial meltdown of 2007-8 and its considerable aftershocks which, interacting with resurgent Russian nationalism, terrorism, Middle Eastern chaos and a consequent uncontrollable flood of refugees, threw Western governments into confusion and the whole post-war liberal international order into something resembling crisis. The pressing issue became how best to address these conditions so as to re-establish order and found some plausible orientation toward a positive future. But reasonable argument on this was made more difficult by the heightened level of resistance to ‘experts’ telling ‘us’ (the public) what to think or do (McClay 2009: 145-146; Pisani-Ferry 2016). We thus entered a baffling ‘post-truth’ era in which ‘alternate facts’ had political currency.

Experts must carry some of the blame for this, especially economic experts who viewed their rigorously ‘scientific’ discipline as imperial over all other social sciences (Lazear 2000: 102-103). Economists provided ideological, technical and mathematically-modelled support for financial structures and instruments that ultimately proved to be grounded in quicksand (Kane 2016: 84-88). The consequent disaster presented governments with an acute problem. Economists had assured them that the problem of economic management had been solved, largely through monetary controls (‘the Great Moderation’). When these assurances proved false and recovery proved elusive, to whom were political leaders to turn for advice but to the very economists who had led them astray?

There was advice aplenty but no true consensus of analysis, prognosis and policy, with the result that few affected governments responded well or creatively to the challenges presented. Indeed, many efforts to shore up crumbling structures seemed only to exacerbate underlying problems. The general floundering was thus in part a failure of theory, but it was also a political failure on the part of experts. Even if some had produced cogent analyses and indicated plausible policies, none had captured an influential political constituency capable of turning theory into reality. Absent an elite political consensus, nothing much could be done. The only alternative was muddling through, and there was a great deal of that.

Achieving a working consensus had been accomplished before, around the theories of John Maynard Keynes in the post-Depression era and then around the ‘neoliberal’ theories of Milton Friedman and his followers after the stagflation crises of the 1970s and ’80s (see Mirowski and Plehwe 2009). Historically-minded people expected that the gravest financial crisis since World War II and the failure of the neoliberal model informing it would cause another such ‘paradigm shift’. This did not happen. Though many ‘heterodox’ economists offered sharp critiques of economic orthodoxy and presented policy alternatives, none commanded agreement among political leaders. The result was policy confusion and competition as advocates of economic stimulus vied with defenders of austerity, often in blatantly moral more than purely economic terms.

In America, President Obama’s sterner instincts for root-and-branch reform of a banking industry whose gross imprudence had brought the world to its knees were curtailed by the conservative advice of Secretary Treasury Timothy Geithner, who argued for generous bail-out schemes for financial institutions while leaving struggling homeowners to survive as best they could (see Green 2010; Barofsky 2012: 138-150; Kane 2014: 184-185). Obama and Geithner were aggrieved that they received small recognition for their achievements (they had, after all, saved the world). But what their ‘practical’ economic policies overlooked (as did ‘practical’ European policies) was the fact that an epic financial failure also represented a colossal ethical failure that caused lingering moral outrage. A sense of injustice was generated by billions of taxpayer dollars poured into the very institutions at the heart of the problem, even as ordinary people lost jobs and homes under regimes of enforced austerity, and as cases of blatant fraud and manipulation among financiers went unprosecuted or received negligible fines (for a Wall Street Journal analysis see Eaglesham and Das 2016). As crisis turned to economic stagnation, the gaping ethical hole at the heart of the modern economy caused a general loss of public trust (Bennett and Kottasz 2012; Edelman 2016).

This ethical issue produced a backlash against globalisation and against established leaders who had presided over its progress. Alternative leaders arose presenting unorthodox (though hardly original) diagnoses of what had gone wrong and what was needed to correct things. Opportunities opened for non-traditional leaders like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in America, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Geert Wilders in Holland, Norbert Hofer in Austria and Marine Le Pen in France, even Pauline Hanson in Australia. The casualties were not just traditional leaders but the parties they led, as most dramatically exhibited in the French presidential elections of 2017. In them the formerly dominant Socialist and Republican parties failed and the presidency fell to a party (En Marche!) formed ad hoc around a candidate, Emmanuel Macron, whose sole political virtue was that he presented a moderate alternative to Le Pen. But traditional parties almost everywhere were in a state of crisis having lost their ideological bearings and been rendered suspect in the view of their old constituencies.

There were of course other complicating factors contributing to political turmoil – terrorism and an influx of refugees, especially in Europe – but these must be seen in the context of years of stagnation or decline of ordinary wages and persistently high unemployment (or underemployment) especially among the young. People worry less about foreign intruders taking their jobs when jobs are plentiful and rewarding. The problem was that traditional parties and their leaders had shown little real appreciation of the condition to which a globalised economy had brought their own constituents or what might be done to amend matters. Nearly a decade on from the crisis, debt continued to mount precipitously, banks were bigger and possibly more fragile than ever, interest rates were stuck near zero and even below without encouraging much in the way of capital expenditure or job creation (see BIS report by Caruana 2016). Incipient signs of recovery encouraged little real optimism amid a climate of lost faith and uncertainty. And it was in this climate that Donald J. Trump mounted and carried his most surprising leadership challenge.

The Crisis of American Parties

At the heart of the crisis afflicting traditional parties around the Western world was the disappearance of the political middle ground, which is to say the loss of a believably alternative Left. The neoliberal success of New Labour and the New Democrats and their ilk in the last part of the twentieth century was based on a calculated move to the Right premised on the political failure of ‘socialism’ globally and a consequent coming to terms with the apparent triumph of business and free markets. Certainly, this had the advantage of robbing the Right of its traditional garments, but the crowding to the Right reduced the Left to a small unreconstructed rump and opened a gaping hole in the political centre. This was not readily apparent so long as easy credit masked the decline of middle class incomes and the steep rise in inequality, but became an urgent problem when exposed by financial crisis and economic stagnation. Then the vacuum at the centre sucked in so-called populist leaders of either far Left or (more often) the far Right (a Right which notably mixed elements of cultural xenophobia with old Left anti-globalisation policies). In America, Hillary Clinton tried to occupy a middle ground that no longer existed and was perceived as representative of an ‘establishment’ that had manifestly failed and was widely resented.

The lessons of Hillary’s loss are still being pondered by Democrats, some of whom claim they did not really lose since she won the popular vote. But they knew well enough how the shift of a few crucial votes in swing states can determine the electoral college outcome. The Democratic Party plainly forfeited the votes of a white working class which had gone to Obama in two previous elections by taking them for granted (Hillary failed even to visit Wisconsin during the campaign). The surprising force and popularity of Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign gave the warning of the shift in popular mood, and Hillary took note and tried to adjust Leftward. But it was too late and too unconvincing given the Clintons’ history of complicity in shaping the modern political economy. She was a weak Centre candidate offering a disillusioned electorate mere competence when it was seeking something more, namely something that carried conviction.

Enter Trump, stage Right, following his cruel devastation of the large Republican Party field. If the Democrats had their problems, those of the Republicans were deeper and in the long run more damaging. Trump was not a Republican – he merely carried the Republican brand as a matter of convenience. Yet he was a candidate that modern Republicanism had both enabled and arguably deserved. Trumpism presented a genuine and perhaps terminal challenge to a party already under a severe historical stress. We must understand this history if we are to understand the Trump phenomenon.

Modern Republicanism is permanently enmired in long-term conservative reaction to the 1930s’ New Deal politics of Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats. Anti-New Dealers could make little headway among a post-war generation that saw active government as a force for progress and stability – and indeed leading ‘moderate’ Republicans, from Ike Eisenhower up to and including Gerald Ford, largely accepted the New Deal settlement. Their dominance within the party underpinned the ‘liberal consensus’ that ruled at home and abroad till the end of the Vietnam War. During this period the forces of reaction strengthened their hand by creating an unlikely ‘fusion’ between libertarians and moral-traditionalists (reinforced in the 1970s by accommodation of the nascent Christian evangelical Right), their gaping contradictions masked by shared anti-communism (Diamond 1995: 25-36). Fusion required compromises, as when libertarians deferred to the States’ rights views of moral traditionalists on the desegregation of public schools. The alliance thus embedded a racist element in the heart of conservative Republicanism that would bear fruit in the notoriously successful ‘Southern strategy’ of the 1970s, which converted old Southern Democrats, hostile to the civil rights movement, into Republicans (Himmelstein 1990: 29-62, 97-197).

The collapse of communism in the late 1980s removed the essential glue holding fusion conservatives together. Divisions were somewhat masked in the 1990s by sheer historical inertia and by continuing shared hostility toward intrusive big government, but also by the triumphalism of a clamorous new set of ‘neo-conservatives’ seeking to capitalise on post-Cold War unipolarity to stamp American authority conclusively on the world. But neoconservative crusading came to grief in Iraq under George W. Bush, whose end-of-tenure was also marked by the gravest economic crisis since the Depression. Renewed disillusionment with foreign adventurism, persistent economic malaise and the election of America’s first black president presented the perfect combination of factors to test the real character and strength of contemporary Republicanism. Unfortunately it widened existing fissures and revealed a great deal of ugliness at the party’s core.

The political calculations of mainstream Republicans in the Obama era helped bring on their party’s crisis. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s strategy of ‘Just say No!’ to every Obama policy was brutally effective but ultimately counterproductive (see Green 2011; Drew 2014). His adamant opposition to the passage of ‘Obamacare’, and the hysterical rhetoric deployed in the process, ignited an ultra-conservative grassroots movement, the Tea Party, which was vitriolic and frankly racist in its rejection, not just of Obama’s policies, but of his person. (And Trump cemented his reputation among Tea Party types by championing the anti-Obama ‘birther’ controversy.) But the Tea Party was a viper taken to the Republican Party’s bosom, for it signalled the ultimate breakdown of fusion conservatism.

This movement from the heartland became an instrument of revenge of Republican footsoldiers for the contempt and neglect they had long suffered at the hands of an elite Republican (largely Eastern) ‘establishment’ that alternatively flattered and ignored them. Its passionate members held more adamantly and literally to the famed ‘principles’ that mainstream Republicans mouthed – small government, low taxes, balanced budgets, a strong military etc – but when in office fudged or compromised. The insurgent movement deployed these principles effectively against incumbent Republicans, including congressional members of long-standing who were successfully challenged in primary contests by Tea Party-approved candidates. In time moderate Republicans became practically extinct, while even reliably conservative members of the Republican ‘establishment’ were forced to appease and placate the adamantly extreme core or risk challenge to their incumbency.

The Trump phenomenon can be understood only against this long historical background, for Trump’s campaign strategy played resoundingly to heartland anger. His inflammatory style exposed the pusillanimity and hypocrisy of routine purveyors of familiar Republican doctrine, which was why he so handily demolished his opponents in the primaries, including the one most favoured by the old establishment and benefitting from most of its largesse, Jeb Bush (‘low energy’). Trump’s rhetoric ignited latent feelings of resentment at elite suppression of full-throated expression of ‘regressive’ sentiments. Traditional Republican ‘dog-whistle’ racist invocation was replaced, under Trump’s influence, by frank prejudice. Serving the interests of rich rentiers was shown to have limited purchase among a class burdened by debt and with declining economic prospects – thus Trump’s unlikely appeal to blue collar victims of global competition. Trump, in other words, called the bluff of ‘respectable’ Republicans and thereby threw them into ideological disarray. They could not in superficial conscience accept him but neither could they, in deepest conscience, deny him (Ribuffo 2015)—though many, realising the danger, tried during the campaign to terminate him.

And then, of course, he won.

Trump as Leader

Republicans now had to ingest Trump’s toxic body and hope it would not prove fatal. On the face of it November 2016 was a Republican triumph as the party would reign in Congress and the White House. Undivided government historically permits administrations to accomplish a great deal electorally, but times have changed.

For one thing, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives hardly controls its own membership, unbalanced by the activities of 30-odd members of the so-called Freedom Caucus allied to the Tea Party. This ultra-conservative group was instrumental in causing former Speaker John Boehner’s resignation in 2015. Current Speaker Paul Ryan hesitated long before accepting the post knowing the challenge he would face, and in fact ideological puritans were central to the failure of his first major piece of legislation under the Trump administration, the preliminary attempt to refashion Obamacare with the American Health Care Act 2017.

Moreover, no secure relationship existed between the new president and congresssional Republicans, not just because Trump had no political experience but because many prominent members (including Ryan) had vociferously opposed him during his campaign. Their patched-up peace would be severely tested as the administration sought to impose its will on the political system.

In undivided government, legislators typically look to the White House for effective leadership. Trump had given elaborate notice of what kind of leadership to expect, disclosed in his claim of success in business. America’s political leaders, he claimed, had failed Americans by not taking sufficient care of their central interests and by allowing America’s formerly super-bright national star to dim on the world stage. Trump sold himself as a hard-headed businessman able to hammer out deals with various protagonists for the benefit of himself and his shareholders, only now his shareholders would be the American people. His negotiating skills would be employed with manufacturing firms and with foreign governments to ensure that Americans (‘real’ Americans) would never again be short-changed. In the process, he would ‘make America great again’ (Thompson 2017).

Trump’s implicit case was that political leadership is not just a different kind of leadership, but an inferior kind. It is always fatally compromised by cross-cutting political demands, by partisan loyalties and enmities, and by dependency on external financial resources. It is thus incapable of the decisiveness that denotes true leadership. Decisions are never truly in the national interest but only in the service of some section or sections. Trump offered clarity and genuine decisiveness. As a self-professed, self-made billionaire he had only to heed his own views of what the national interest required and act accordingly, for he owed nothing to anyone. In a sense this was true. He was the Joker in the Republican deck and, in his irreverent barnstorming showman’s fashion, he had outfoxed all the political professionals. They owed him, not vice versa.

Nevertheless, he owed a debt to the people who elected him, and there’s the rub. His true ‘followership’ was actually quite thin from the beginning. As Hillary-supporters never tire of pointing out, over half of those who voted in November did not vote for Donald Trump, which did not matter a jot for his gaining office but left an awful lot of people proclaiming that ‘he is not our president’. Nor did Trump make any attempt, either in his inaugural address or thereafter, to reach out to the dismayed multitude and offer to lead the nation as a single nation. Rather he doubled down on the divisiveness that had marked his campaign and in the process provoked a storm of liberal protest such as the US has not seen in decades.

But of those who did vote for him, how many can be described as true followers? Voting figures suggest that party identification played its usual major role at the last minute (Vavrek 2017), meaning habitual Republican voters, whatever they personally thought of Trump, could not bring themselves to vote for a Democrat (maybe especially that Democrat). A thin layer of disenchanted, mainly white working-class voters in crucial rust-belt states tilted the balance Trump’s way, and perhaps these are his true and only real followers. They are his ‘basket of deplorables’ and proud of it, his ‘forgotten people’, the narrow base on which he (and former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon) hoped to rebuild an archaic version of American, quasi-racialist nationalism.

But even here we may doubt the depth and solidity of such followership. Reports at the time revealed that many voters believed less in Trump and his promises than in his capacity to stick it to Washington and the ruling ‘elites’ of both parties. And Trump was not wrong in diagnosing a perceived failure of political leadership as a cause of public dissatisfaction. He was in many respects an improvised explosive device lobbed into ‘the establishment’ by a crucial wedge of supporters, who seemed pleased enough by the effects of his initial weeks of power. But was their main purpose to destroy the whole political structure or just to get its attention and hopefully tip policy meaningfully in their direction? Suicide bombers are by definition disposable, and for Trump to survive his havoc-making he would have to convince his deplorables over time that he would indeed make a noticeable difference to their lives and fortunes. Failing that he had no political base to fall back on except the power of the executive office itself.

That is, to be sure, a considerable resource, but also a vulnerable one without some secure and reliable constituency, something Trump perhaps did not appreciate when he assumed office. The Republicans in Congress are certainly not that. Wrong-footed by an upstart celebrity who nevertheless delivered them the presidency, they wanted to make the most of their opportunity but could not easily control the political agenda with such an unpredictable tenant in the Oval Office. During a series of early presidential gaffes, mis-steps and outrages, they showed remarkable solidarity in backing ‘their’ president, but the pressures were bound to increase dangerously over time. With a Congress unable to manage the president, and a president unable to manage Congress, the recipe for continuing chaos was set.

Trump’s vaunted capacity as negotiator and deal-maker would seem advantageous given that deal-making, both within Congress and between Congress and White House, is (or used to be, pre-Obama) of the essence of American politics. But there is a critical difference between business leadership and democratic political leadership. CEOs of business firms are like monarchs whose writ runs large within their organisations. Their most important negotiations are with external firms and agencies, in the way monarchs deal with other independent monarchs, using diplomacy that often includes subterfuge, misdirection and outright bullying (Irwin 2017). Internally they decide on strategy, promulgate it and order that it be followed.

The president can similarly command through executive orders, and Trump has exulted in delivering them. But there is a limit to what can be achieved in this way, and such orders are vulnerable to overthrow by succeeding administrations (Rudalevige 2017). Any lasting legacy must be secured by legislation and the president cannot order Congress to pass anything. He cannot even command his ‘own’ party. Trump’s blunt CEO style was thus out of place in an American system designed to prevent monarchical behaviour. Nothing can be achieved legislatively without considerable negotiation, deal-making and horse-trading. Undertaking presidential leadership generally means learning severe lessons in humility, a Christian virtue not prominent in Trump’s ethical universe.

The president does have extensive authority over the huge federal bureaucracy, but Trump and his conspiracy-minded cronies hate that body. It is ‘the deep state’, an even greater ‘enemy of the people’ than the mainstream press because it is less visible. Trump immediately set about trying to dismantle or weaken the offices most ideologically repugnant to him – for example, environmental and energy agencies – partly by staffing them with people fundamentally opposed to their legislated purposes. But this ‘permanent government’ is a many-headed entity containing many long-term professionals with ways of striking back, as Trump soon discovered in his fraught confrontations with the FBI.

The only way a president lacking a significant political base but holding levers of power can ensure longevity is the authoritarian route of engineering a coup (not for nothing does Trump admire Putin and Duterte). But the fragmented US political system, whatever its manifest faults, is unlikely to permit that. Trump found, to his fury, that obscure federal judges in obscure parts of the country had the power to thwart his temporary bans on immigration. True, he has authority over judicial appointments at many levels and will undoubtedly use this vengefully. A major early accomplishment from a Republican point of view was his enablement of the appointment of a conservative judge to the Supreme Court. Yet once judges are in place and free to decide cases as they will, it is impossible for the executive to order, or even predict, what particular judgments will be made. In other words, the separated powers of the American political system are likely to frustrate Trump’s style of leadership every time he attempts to exercise it – unless of course he learns political prudence, which seems a very long shot indeed.


It is impossible to account for Trump’s ascendancy without explaining, in addition to his own unwonted ego, the historical and structural conditions that made it possible. Of course there are always incidents and accidents that might have drastically changed the course of history (could Bernie have won?) but structure remains crucial when systemic forces are at play. I have argued that disillusionment with politics-as-usual afflicts almost all developed countries and must be traced to economic and political shifts that occurred back in the 1970s and ’80s (Bauman 2016). Loss of faith in traditional parties and their leaders to address either acute or slow-burning issues, especially economic ones, opened the way for non-traditional contenders of either Right or Left. In the American context, the New Democrats’ close association with neoliberal globalising policies placed them at a disadvantage, which Trump took full advantage of in his appeal to formerly Democratic blue-collar voters.

Yet Trump’s victory merely underscored the task that the Democratic Party must face in adjusting to a changing political climate; it did not destroy the party. It is far less clear that Trumpism has not delivered a fatal blow to the Republican Party, at least as currently constituted. I have tried to show that the party was approaching a terminus ad absurdum before Trump came along, having become the virtual captive of its most extreme wing. Trump both exposed and profited from this internal disarray. The appeal of his mix of xenophobic Right and illiberal Left policies revealed the real distance that existed between the party’s elites (and elite backers) and grassroots supporters. If, as I have claimed, democratic leadership success requires creating a solid centre from which to govern, the Democrats would seem at least to have a chance of reconstituting the abandoned middle; the Republicans seem hardly capable of inspecting the ground never mind occupying it. Of course Republicans benefit inordinately from skewed districting in many states, over-emphasising their representative success and giving them a secure electoral base whatever happens. If a party that has professed, at least since Reagan’s day and at its most august levels, to believe that government is always the problem never a solution, yet nevertheless comes to occupy all branches of government and signally fails to govern effectively or, worse, governs blatantly for the enrichment of those who need it least, it is hard not to imagine that a day of reckoning is near.