Professor of US History: Why Trump Is Doomed to Be an Impotent President
As his presidency was ending, George Washington delivered a farewell address to the nation warning against political parties because they would be divisive. However, few Americans obeyed the Father of the Country as political parties quickly became a salient feature of the American political system. Federalists and Democratic-Republicans would become the first Two-Party system.
Party organizations within each state arose with the parties running candidates for local, state and Congressional offices. A vital question needed answering: would the presidency remain above politics as Washington advocated or would the president become a creature of a political party? Resoundingly, the latter alternative won the day. Presidents are nominated and elected through political parties and if a president lacks party support, effective governance becomes extremely difficult. President Trump, unlike most of his predecessors, was not the choice of party leaders and his prospects of an effective successful presidency are dim because of his behavior, he continues to lack party allegiance.
With the 12th Amendment of 1804, political parties began nominating national tickets for president and vice-president. Once elected, the president begins working with his party congressional leaders to promote a legislative agenda. At times the president’s party in Congress takes the lead and at other times a strong president is dominant. A disruption in the system has occurred only when a president was succeeded in midterm by a vice president lacking party allegiance. This happened when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and his successor Andrew Johnson came into conflict with the Republican majority in Congress. Impeachment resulted.
Until the 1970s party leaders or activists chose the national ticket in convention. But then a trend for greater democracy gained ground. In 1972, the Democrats, over the objections of most party leaders, nominated George McGovern, who had won state primaries and caucuses, which became the new way of nominating presidential candidates.
When primaries and to a lesser extent caucuses became the means of selecting the party nominees, the door was opened to electing presidents without the support of the party structure or the party’s congressional leadership. In 1976 Democrats nominated and elected a president who was not the choice of the party leaders.
Jimmy Carter became the first president to capture his party through primaries and caucuses rather than by winning the allegiance of his party leaders. To succeed as an effective president, Carter would have to forge a relationship with his party’s congressional leaders. But he failed in that task. An uncompromising loner, Carter believed he could study issues and derive solutions on his own. He made proposals to remedy the economy without. The first president nominated without party leadership support did not succeed.
Since Carter, we have had Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama. Some of these presidents were not the first choice of a majority of party leaders, but all were highly acceptable to their party and were able to work with their party leadership in Congress. This is not the case with Trump who is in position to have greater difficulty than even Carter had. The first months of the Trump presidency is an indication of that.
Prior to his presidential campaign, Trump had not been identified with any party, nor did he express political views consistent with past Republican Party platforms. When talking politics in interviews before campaigning for president, Trump was seemingly pro-choice. Both before and after he began his campaign he claimed to be for universal healthcare. He boasted of having good relations with prominent people of both parties. In contrast, no one ever questioned Carter’s party loyalty as he had served as a Democratic state senator and governor.
Furthermore, Trump conducted himself in the campaign in a way that alienated many prominent Republicans. His juvenile-like name calling of party opponents such as “Lying Ted” or “Little Marco” precluded him from capturing substantial support from Republican leaders. His belittling of John McCain’s war record further alienated certain loyal Republicans. Trump also deviated from the truth numerous times in the campaign. For example, he claimed to have seen thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11, yet no one else in the world saw that. Trump seemingly went out of his way to win over devoted Republican leaders Carter was never that vicious especially toward fellow Democrats, nor did he have a long record of lying.
After winning the nomination, Trump did get lukewarm support from Republican leaders and won the election. But now he has to get Republican congressional support to govern effectively. That has not happened and the failed healthcare deliberations illustrate this.
Since taking office, Trump has been yelling repeal and replace Obamacare with no understanding of the complexity. He celebrated the House passage of a repeal and replace bill only to later call the bill “mean.” When the Senate took up a similar bill, Trump became a spectator as he knows so very little about healthcare issues. Although Trump seems in agreement with Republican congressional goals, he is proving to be inept in getting legislation drafted and passed.
In other areas Trump is proving unworthy of Republican leadership support. When disruption occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia due to a demonstration of white supremacists, Trump refused to denounce by name the white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, KKK, domestic terrorists. Many Republicans denounced him for that. Republican House Representative Mark Sanford accused Trump of unleashing “demons” and was therefore partially to blame for this hostile environment. In addition, Republicans are increasingly disillusioned with Trump’s handling of the growing scandal concerning Russia. From his firing of the FBI director to his denial of ever having contact with Russians Republicans are weary of the president they elected. Further, his “fire and fury” remark about North Korea makes it difficult for Republicans knowledgeable about foreign policy to have confidence in him.
America decided early in its history to have presidents chosen by political parties. When there is little or no support by a party, it becomes difficult for the president to accomplish much. The method of choosing presidential nominees through primaries makes it more likely to have a president who was elected without party support and Trump is in that category. He still could be successful if he wins party support. However, due to his dishonest bombastic nature, his unwillingness to study issues and legislation, and his tolerance of hatred, Trump is unlikely to win his party’s allegiance. Increasingly Republicans are becoming less timid about denouncing him. His presidency is faltering. It will continue to falter unless drastic changes occur. To become an effective president he needs to change.