The True Nature of Trump’s Presidential Power

Just over two years ago, I described the problem of inferring how strong or weak a leader is from the political outcomes that we observe. What prompted that discussion was the hullabaloo surrounding the first couple weeks of the Trump administration—the Muslim ban, the reorganization of the White House, Bannon and Kushner, and so forth. It is easy to recall the panicked reactions by many in the commentariat.

My point was that the worst interpretations of the Trump administration’s chaos are observationally equivalent with more innocuous ones. That is because, as I wrote,

weak leaders often act like strong leaders, and strong leaders often act like they are indifferent. Weak leaders have every incentive to portray themselves as stronger than they are in order to get their way. They gamble on splashy policies. They escalate crises. This is just as true for democrats as for dictators…The consummate strong ruler is one who does not issue any command or instruction at all because she does not have to—her will is implemented already.

In the ensuing two years, we have learned quite a bit about just how weak and ineffective the president is. The best commentary on Trump’s presidential weakness comes from Matt Glassman. See, for example, this magisterial thread, following Neustadt‘s analysis of presidential power.

Although what I wrote in 2017 is correct, and although I also endorse Glassman’s analysis, both are vulnerable to a radical critique that a conventional analysis of presidential power will miss. His power is not to convince, or to set the agenda, but to define for others what their interests are.

This distinction between influence, coercion, and agenda-setting, on one hand, and domination and interest-making, on the other, follows the classic “faces of power” debate in political science as articulated by Bachrach and Baratz (PDF) and Lukes (PDF). Their analyses are rich and subtle, but the essence of the “third face” of power is that a A exerts power over B by defining for B what B‘s interests and desires actually are.

This view of power as domination and interest-making has quotidian applications: I expose my children to certain types of music in order to ensure that they grow up liking that music, for example. In the political sphere, the third face of power encompasses the power to socialize others into believing in a particular order of things, to habituate individuals to an acceptable state of affairs, to shape desires in a way that may leave the subject unaware that this has ever occurred.

This third face of power is challenging. It would be very hard to observe this kind of power in action, because it operates through structures, habits, practices, and impressions rather than through commands or rules. Moreover, you cannot query the subject about whether power has been exerted over her, because the essence of this view of power is that the subject is probably unaware that it exists.* It also has a tendency to remove agency from the subject, conceiving her as vulnerable to the whims of the powerful.

Holding these caveats aside for now, what if it is power’s third face that defines the true nature of Trump’s presidential power? His is the power to dominate his co-partisans in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. This rationalizes the policy ineffectiveness of the Trump White House—just so long as we redefine President Trump’s core objectives as enriching himself and surviving in office. On that assumption, President Trump has been effective. He has made is copartisans believe that they wish to do the things that they do in defending his manifestly corrupt, morally bankrupt, and ineffective administration.

There is abundant evidence that President Trump is a weak president when we conceptualize power as influence, coercion, or agenda-setting. Glassman’s analysis is spot-on in this regard. Even the Mueller report details instances of the President failing to do terrible things because he orders his subordinates to do them and they refuse.

At the same time, President Trump has produced a Congress and an executive branch filled with conservative politicians who believe that this president may violate the Emoluments Clause, challenge the independence of the press and the Fed, apologize for literal Nazis, abandon free trade, conspire with the Russian government to interfere with U.S. elections, all without any threat of being held to account because Congress does not have the authority to check the executive branch. The word that I have used throughout to describe this phenomenon is domination, understood either in theoretical sense of Scott** or in the ethological sense of evolutionary psychology.

Of course, the third face of power is the most contested face of power. Maybe President Trump’s co-partisans are just making a rational calculation about what serves their short term interests. They don’t really believe these things, they just say them because doing so is politically expedient, or they demur and ignore his ogrelike and venal behavior because they do get some policy goodies here and there. If so, then what I have written above is incorrect, and the observational equivalence problem that I described in 2017 applies here too. But the most radical view of power would suggest that we must take seriously the possibility that President Trump’s power is the power to dominate. *ahem*


* Why, for instance, do I think that this is the best song of the 1960s?
** Scott, in fact, is useful as a critique of the third face of power, because he sees resistance as ever-present in the face of domination, and he clarifies that we may not observe resistance for the same reason that we may not observe domination.