The Intellectual Origins of the Trump Presidency and the Construction of Contemporary American Politics

It is foolish to think that Trumpism and Trumpistas are merely a product of personality. To believe that is to assume that Donald Trump is sui generis, elected under unique circumstances and that the politics and polices produced under him are tied to him. Believing that means also that once Trump leaves office, be in 2020 or beyond, Trumpism will end.

Yet the reality is that Donald Trump is merely the figurehead for Trumpism and Trumpistas. All three are the product of a series of forces that made his presidency and policies possible. The roots of Trumpism are long and deep, and contrary to what some sarcastically may think, there are the intellectual foundations that set the conditions for Trump’s election and his subsequent presidency.

The intellectual roots of Trumpism need to be distinguished from other social forces that have made Trump a persona of the times. A Freudian social psychological analysis of Trumpism would perhaps explain the misogynist and hyper-masculine nature of the movement whereas theories of spatial geography and sociobiology could uncover the roots of the nativism and racism. Neo-liberal economic theory amply would capture the way global and state restructuring of the economy since the 1970s have contextualized the anxieties of Trumpistas, making the racist, protectionist, and misogynist rhetoric of the president so appealing to them. All these are antecedent causes for the movement known as Trumpism.

But there are also intellectual theories that underpin the Trump presidency and the political power which he leverages, and which precludes the constitutional concepts of checks and balances and separation of powers from doing their job. Unlike during the Nixon presidency when constitutional norms prevailed over partisanship, the Trump presidency is defined by the failure of these norms to work. When candidate Trump proclaimed that: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” he might as well have said he would not lose any Republican support in Congress. Despite overwhelming evidence in the Mueller Report that Trump has abused his authority, as well as other clear instances where he has run roughshod on congressional and constitutional norms, the Republicans in both Houses stand firmly behind, making impeachment an impractical check upon him.

The intellectual roots that have made the Trump presidency possible are trifold: The American Political Science Association’s (APSA) advocacy for strong political parties; Neo-conservative unitary executive constitutional scholarship; and Nietzschean-Postmodern journalistic theories denying the validity of objective truth.

Political Scientists and Political Parties

Political parties have occupied an ambiguous role in American politics. The 1787 constitutional framers in Philadelphia either hoped or presupposed they would not exist. Proof of this fact is that parties are not mentioned in the text and that the original process to select the president by the Electoral College presupposed that the person getting the most electoral votes became president and the runner up becoming vice-president. It was only with George Washington’s 1796 farewell speech, the crisis of the 1800 election, and the Twelfth Amendment were political parties begrudging acknowledged constitutionally. But the American concept of parties was always unique.

Classic American politics textbooks would describe them as coalitional, not ideological, built up from the bottom and not a top-down centralized entity. Unlike European-style political parties in parliamentary systems which were strongly ideological, their American counterparts were not. It was not unusual to find conservatives, moderates, and liberals within both the Republican and Democratic parties, even up until a generation ago. For some political scientists such as Morris Fiorina’s 1992 Divided Government, the ideological diversity and heterogeneity of the two major parties are what made governance work and that divided government was not an impediment to governing.

Yet post World War II and FDR presidency, a coalitional of political scientists lamented relatively weak parties in the United States. Some like E.E. Schattschneider in his 1942 Party Government described political parties as America’s second constitution, needed to make it possible to assemble majorities and govern. Many within the political science community agreed with the concept of strong party government, opining for the US to adopt more of a European-style of political parties for America, despite the fact that our constitutional system was separation of powers, not parliamentary, and one where it was not even clear the basic government institutions made party accommodation possible when the goal of the constitutional system, at least in the opinion of James Madison in Federalist number 10, was to break up factions or groups such as parties..

Nonetheless, in 1950 the APSA issued its Toward a More Responsible Two-Party System: A Report of the Committee on Political Parties, advocating for stronger, more disciplined, and ideologically more pure parties. As the report stated in its summary about the condition of political parties in America:

Historical and other factors have caused the American two-party system to operate as two loose associations of state and local organizations, with very little national machinery and very little national cohesion. As a result, either major party, when in power, is ill-equipped to organize its members in the legislative and the executive branches into a government held together and guided by the party program. Party responsibility at the polls thus tends to vanish. This is a very serious matter, for it affects the very heartbeat of American democracy. It also poses grave problems of domestic and foreign policy in an era when it is no longer safe for the nation to deal piecemeal with issues that can be disposed of only on the basis of coherent programs (v).

The traditional loose, almost non-ideological confederate structure of political parties was seen as a detriment and not virtue of American politics. The APSA thus called for what it labeled an “effective party system.” An effective party system would be able to call forth programs and an agenda to which it was committed (1). To do that parties needed sufficient internal cohesion to carry out these programs (1); sufficient party loyalty (2), and the ability of party leaders to enforce discipline in primaries, caucuses and conventions (2). This view of parties also called for greater resistance to outside pressures (19), virtually insulating themselves from external forces.

Importantly, this vision of a party assumed that they would be able to control interest groups and aggregate them together, as opposed to a party being captured by interest groups. This vision of a party relied on a political science folktale that believed in places where parties were strong interest groups were weak, and vice versa. Build strong parties, the belief is, and one would weaken or mitigate interest group competition. This theory, coming at a time when the concept of pluralism as the reigning political science paradigm or description for American politics was emerging, made sense. Encourage interest group formation and competition as a means of distributing political power, according to political scientists such as Robert Dahl and David Truman, and one could promote democracy. But encourage strong parties to bring order and discipline to this competition.

The APSA got what it wanted more or less. As a matter of public policy and court decisions, political parties were strengthened, especially in the last quarter century. Campaign finance laws increased the ability of parties to raise money and court decisions insulated internal party matters from regulation. The upshot was that the two major parties became more internally cohesive and ideologically pure, with recent political science scholarship attesting to how the coalitional nature of the Republican and Democratic parties has receded, producing little if any ideological overlap socially and in Congress.

What we find now in Congress are more like European-style ideological parties with strong internal cohesion and discipline than existed in the 1970s. Such a party, as we see currently in the Republican US Senate, is more responsive to partisan and party pressure incentives than it is to the institutional checks and balances and separation of powers measures envisioned by James Madison and the constitutional framers. A president’s party in power acts to support him almost lockstep, reminiscent of what one would see in a parliamentary government, while the party not of the president’s in the case of the current House, acts more like the proverbial loyal opposition.

While strong parties did emerge, they did not weaken interest groups. The APSA folk wisdom that strong parties would weaken interest groups largely was incorrect. As later research by Theodore Lowi in his 1979 The End of Liberalism described, political parties could be captured by interest groups. Small, cohesive groups, such as Mancur Olson described earlier in his 1965 The Logic of Collective Action, could be potent forces in politics. Small powerful interest groups thus could take over political parties and then use the institutions and structures of the latter to government. This oversight in the strong party theory provided the avenue for groups such as the Tea party and then eventually the Trumpistas and Trump to take over the Republican Party.

Unitary Executive

The second intellectual trend of the Trump presidency is located with the concept of the unitary executive. This concept is located in language found both in the Constitution’s Article II vesting clause (“The executive power shall be vested in the president”) and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers 70, 71, and 73. The unitary executive theory declares that all executive branch power is vested in the president and Congress is limited in its ability to limit presidential appointment and removal power.

The unitary executive theory was given its first Supreme Court endorsement in Myer v. United States, 272 U.S. 52, 135 (1926). Here the Court gave the president broad constitutional authority to remove an executive department official who had been confirmed by the Senate. That decision seemed to grant broad presidential powers over the executive branch, grounded in the Article II vesting clause and concept of separation of powers. The executive branch is of one entity, under control of the president, whose power cannot be curtailed by Congress. Myer is the touchstone for conservative constitutional scholars endorsing a strong president.

The modern origin of the unitary executive theory is traced to Justice Scalia’s dissent in Morrison v Olson, 487 U.S. 654, 691 (1988) where the Court upheld the then special prosecutor law and insulation of that person from significant presidential control. Scalia’s dissent saw this law as a separation of powers violation. Lee Liberman, former clerk to Justice Scalia and then a vice-president in the Federalist Society, was also sharply critical of the decision in a famous 1989 essay. Liberman’s was a formalist critique, seeing in the special prosecutor law an unwarranted intrusion on presidential authority.

Morrison came at a time when Ronald Reagan was president and conservative legal scholars were slavishly seeking to uphold executive authority, especially at a time when a new special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh was appointed to investigate illegal activity in that administration regarding the illegal sale of weapons to Iran and use the proceeds to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. The unitary executive theory was renewed again when George H. Bush was president, especially post 9-11, when his authority to wage the war on terror was judicially contested.

At a time in the 1980s and then early 2000s when Republicans were occupying the White House, and able to appoint federal court judges, the focus of Scalia, Liberman, and then Steven Calabresi and Kevin Rhodes in their 1992 “The Structural Constitution: Unitary Executive, Plural Judiciary” was to endorse executive prerogatives and control over all administrative agencies, eschewing the idea that there limits on what presidents could do. If all executive power was embodied in the president, then he could dismiss inferiors as desired, issue executive orders unchecked, and manage administrative agencies and make decisions despite congressional mandates or whatever Congress, the law, or specifically the Administrative Procedures Act demanded.

An offshoot of the unitary executive theory in the hands of Scalia and conservative legal theorists was first a downplaying of the use of congressional legislative intent in interpreting statutes. Scalia saw ascertaining such intent as impossible, while at the same time advocating for the use of originalism when seeking meaning in the Constitution. Rejecting congressional intent as a way to interpret statutes clearly weakened the legislative branch, empowering the courts (stacked with conservative Republican judges) to determine what a law meant.

Second, weakening Congress also led to conservatives embracing the administrative law classic decision of Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). Chevron empowered both the courts and the executive branch by declaring that federal judges should in cases of statutory ambiguous defer to reasonable interpretations by administrative agencies. Contrarily, if the statute was clear, the courts would give it its plain meaning. Under Chevron, Congressional intent was irrelevant, and they were cut out of the picture when it came to what regulations meant, again strengthening presidential power.

The import of the conservative constitutional scholars was to emphasize separation of powers over checks and balances, and executive authority over Congress. Drawing upon dubious legal history, this unitary executive concept saw a continuous and growing string of presidential authority from George Washington to the present elevating the power of the executive branch over Congress.

The unitary executive theory has enabled Donald Trump’s presidency in many ways. It is his use of executive orders to bypass Congress. It is efforts to escape congressional oversight by evading subpoenas preventing the Treasury Secretary from turning over the president’s tax records, or refusing to allow executive or former executive department officials to testify before the House. It also includes defiance in terms of declaring an emergency to fund a border wall and simply to act as if the Administrative Procedures Act does not matter and Trump himself can simply refusal to comply with the law. Conservative legal theorists, more so than anyone, built the legal edifice upon which Trump presidential authority is justified.

Denial of Truth and the Rise of Alternative Facts

The third intellectual trend enabling Trumpism is the questioning of truth and the rise of alternative facts and allegations of fake news. The Washington Post and other journalism outlets have documented more than 10,000 lies Trump has told since becoming president. His presidency to large part is rooted in a denial of truth, a questioning of the orthodoxy of the traditional establishment, especially the mainstream media and official sources of government knowledge, including the intelligence community.

Clearly there is an institutional basis to the rise of alternative facts and the capacity of the Trumpistas to deny truth. The fragmentation of the media market and the attendant knowledge bubbles consumers live in, the rise and dominance of the social media, and the emergence of Fox national news as a de facto state media for Trump and the Republican party are just some of the institutional basis for the ability of the president and his supporters to obscure truth. Moreover, as historian Richard Hofstadter described in his 1963 Anti-Intellectualism in American Life or as captured in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible which used the Salem witch hunts as a backdrop to criticize the McCarthyism of the 1950s, there is a deep seated distrust for knowledge and intellectuals in the US. No doubt all this has played into the rise of Trumpism.

Yet there too is an intellectual source for this questioning of objective truth. More deeply, one can trace it to a trend in modern philosophy that perhaps starts with Rene Descartes’ seventeenth century skepticism that became a major pillar of one wing of how to think about knowledge. Eighteenth century philosopher David Hume similarly questioned the empirical certainty of our perceptions. But Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of all knowledge as perspectival, rooted in the notion of the will to power, is the most direct influence upon a group of thinkers in the 1970s and 1980s who came to question the concept of objective truth.

The Postmodern movement raised legitimate questions about what constitutes truth and knowledge and how both are formed. These postmodern philosophers were Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida. In the field of science, Paul Feyerabend’s name can be added to the list, as well as Michel Foucault. Foucault asserted that knowledge is produced through the operations of power, suggesting a relativity and contending basis for knowledge and truth.

It is not clear that abstract and complex philosophy directly provides the intellectual foundations for Trumpism. Where it does play out is in terms of journalism. While much has been written about the history of journalism in America and how traditionally it was partisan, there was a golden era post-World War II until perhaps the 1980s when at least the belief in seeking the truth was the basis guiding the gathering dissemination of the news. Walter Cronkite, the long-term famous anchor or the nightly CBS news, signed off with his “And that’s the way it is” moniker every night, reinforcing the idea that he was reporting just the facts. Similarly, the premise of Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s 1974 All the President’s Men was the pursuit of a second source to corroborate allegations of Richard Nixon’s role in Watergate. Truth existed, and the task of journalists, the media, or the news establishment was to find and report it. Truth stood in juxtaposition to bias.

Journalism schools and pedagogy at that time emphasized this belief in objectivity. All the President’s Men was an inspiration for many who went to journalism school, as were the role models of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, and many other professional journalists at the time. Don Gillmor, professor the University of Minnesota established the field of journalism that emphasized the need for objectivity, source corroboration, and the elimination of bias as means of enhancing the status of the profession and its pursuit of truth. What best captures this golden age of journalism are the movies The Post (2017) and Spotlight (2015), respectively depicting the Washington Post under Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee in its pursuit of Nixon and the Boston Globe uncovering the sex abuse and cover up in the Catholic Church. Old-line journalists get teary-eyed watching these movies because it captured the press at its best, but also recognizing that those days of such zealous reporting were gone.

Media scholars such as Juan Ramon Munôz-Torres noted how journalism too was impacted by the Postmodern questioning of objectivity. Gradually, reporting objective facts or truth came to be questioned. Of course this questioning of truth was reinforced by the fragmentation of the media market and audiences and a drive toward for-profit journalism that placed greater emphasis on market share and appealing to viewers than telling them what they needed or should know.

A way to capture this change was thinking in terms of the traditional task of journalists to interview or consult a variety of sources to determine was is truth or true. The shift gradually became one of now interviewing or consulting various sources and reporting those opinions. Old-school journalism was like being assigned the task of finding out what “1+1 =?” and the task was to report the answer was “1.” Now the task would be to report that “Some say it is 1, some say it is 2, some say it is 3.” Reporting came to reflect perspectivalism, objectivity required reporting all sides of the debate, not finding the truth.

As I argued elsewhere, this merger of for-profit journalism along with politics produced politainment–a combination of politics and entertainment. Politainment premiumed the celebrity aspect of politics, giving an advantage to candidates and personalities who best could master the new pop culture trends affecting news. Ronald Reagan a former actor is one example, as was Bill Clinton’s famous 1992 saxophone appearance on the Arsenio Hall show another in terms of how politainers could take advantage of a shift not just in what is reported but the overall focus of where people got their news and what was considered news.

This shift in journalism standards meant reporting opinion or contrasting views, or simply one side of the issue. If one can consult a different television station or news source and get a different perspective on what is truth, the concept of objective facts collapses. It becomes easy to discount news that is disagreeable as simply alternative facts or fake news. Unlike during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson where the difference between what his administration was saying about the war in Vietnam and the reality that reporters saw produced the credibility gap that helped undermine his legitimacy, this is no longer the case with Donald Trump. The collapse in the belief in truth, at least from a journalistic or media perspective, gives Trump free license to lie, claim, or deny anything he wants, and his partisan base seems unmoved by this. Governing by falsehood, or the big lie, empowers the presidency to act without fear that its actions will be checked by an aggressive media watchdog.

Constructing the Trump Presidency

The Trump presidency thus has benefitted from the intellectual work of political scientists who yearned for strong party government, conservative constitutional scholars who elevated a dubious theory of a unitary executive to a fashionable legal theory, and a philosophical-journalist line of scholarship that disassembled a belief in objective truth. These were intellectual trends emerging well before Donald Trump became president. In fact, these trends constructed Donald Trump and made is presidency possible.

Trump is simply the latest in a lineage of politainers advantaged by the new rules of journalism. His mastery of the new celebrity, entertainment, for-profit news industry gave him the ability to overcome the strong party government that had been constructed by the political science community. He and interested groups also exploited the weaknesses in party governance by capturing the GOP. Once elected, Trump continues to benefit from the journalism and partisan trends, but also from the powerful intellectual forces creating the modern presidency. These trends are not going away when Trump is no longer president. They are forces that have produced Trumpism, nourished Trumpistas, and which make challenging the power of the current president so difficult. Trumpism is a feature of contemporary America politics, with or without Donald Trump as president.


David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.