The Hidden Forces That Will Shape Trump's Presidency

Donald Trump speaking to supporters in Phoenix, Arizona. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore

The same powerful forces that both empowered and constrained his modern predecessors will shape his administration, for good and ill.

Much has been written about the ahistorical nature of Donald Trump, the first person ever elected president of the United States without ever serving in government or the military. Indeed, to anchor some of Trump’s protectionist and anti-establishment positions in a historical context, political scientists and historians have reached back all the way to the mercantilism of eighteenth-century Europe, and the populism of President Andrew Jackson in early nineteenth-century America.

Despite his determination to challenge the orthodoxies of the current political system and international order, however, Trump cannot escape history. The same powerful forces that both empowered and constrained his modern predecessors will shape his administration, for good and ill. Trump’s triumphs will depend on familiar alignments of political actors and motivations, just as his tragedies are destined to follow a recognizable script. As Mark Twain reputedly mused, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

I recently co-edited the anthology Triumphs & Tragedies of the Modern Presidency: Case Studies in Presidential Leadership, published by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. In it we asked some of the top historians, journalists and political scientists in the country to search for and identify those rhymes and cadences of history. Our writers examined the first one hundred days of every post–World War II president, the architects of the “American Century.” These case studies offer important lessons in successful presidential leadership, as well as pitfalls that any new administration would do well to avoid. Above all, this examination suggests that a sense of humility and awe is in order that is not yet apparent as President Trump assumes the position of “leader of the free world.”

One Hundred Days

Virtually every president of the modern era has chafed at the “First One Hundred Days” as an artificial measuring stick, one set impossibly high by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, when he shepherded fifteen major new laws through a compliant Congress. And yet none of FDR’s predecessors have fully escaped the “hundred days” expectations game, in part because this liftoff phase is when new presidents and administrations are at their most aspirational, and thus revealing. The personalities and priorities illuminated in this early period of governing make an indelible first impression, giving the new administration a chance to develop a presidential narrative before the political winds inevitably shift, and unforeseen crises sidetrack and distract.

The first hundred days are also when election headwinds are at their strongest, and mandates can be claimed and leveraged. A president’s party almost always loses congressional seats in midterm elections, for instance, making it imperative that a new administration starts strong. Lyndon B. Johnson, the master legislator and presidential arm twister who early on achieved one of the most transformative legislative agendas in modern history, described this phenomenon best.

“I keep hitting hard because I know this honeymoon won’t last. Every day I lose a little more political capital. That’s why we have to keep at it, never letting up,” Johnson said. “One day soon, I don’t know when, the critics and the snipers will move in and we will be at stalemate. [After a few months lawmakers will] all be thinking about their reelections. I’ll have made mistakes, my polls will be down, and they’ll be trying to put some distance between themselves and me. They won’t want to go into the fall with their opponents calling ’em Lyndon Johnson’s rubber stamp.”

A Bureaucratic Behemoth

Every president confronts a different set of challenges, and their administrations must navigate specific economic, domestic political, and geopolitical landscapes. One constant has been the increasing size and complexity of the U.S. government itself, however, as the country grew into its mantle as the leader of the Western democracies after World War II, becoming an undisputed superpower in the Cold War and post–Cold War eras.

Modern presidents have to stock the massive executive-branch bureaucracies responsible for overseeing the largest economy in the world, and underwriting an international order that is largely dependent on the United States to enforce its rules and norms with a globe-spanning diplomatic corps and military. They have to appoint no fewer than fifteen Cabinet secretaries, and shepherd more than one thousand political appointees through an increasingly cumbersome vetting and confirmation process. The number of congressional committees and staff that new administrations have to navigate has likewise proliferated to provide oversight of an expanded federal bureaucracy, further complicating the process of staffing a new administration. The average time required for Senate confirmation of a top-level political appointee, for instance, has grown, from less than three months during the Kennedy administration to roughly nine months in the twenty-first century.