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Trump: The tribune of popular discontent

There’s little doubt that Donald Trump is a beneficiary of recent popular discontent with politics as usual and the established elites in Washington, D.C., labeled by Trump supporter Newt Gingrich as “the swamp.”

Todd Eberly and I, in our 2013 book “American Government and Popular Discontent,” charted the rise of public disaffection with politics. We found two major trends, stretching back to the mid-1960s.

First, popular discontent with government grew unevenly but, over time, in great degree.  It’s measured by a University of Michigan Center for Political Studies question asking whether the respondent agrees with the statement “public officials don’t care what people like me think.”

Political scientists call this a measure of “external efficacy” — people’s view of how effective they can be when politically active. Low levels of external efficacy are a good measure of popular discontent.

In 1960, only 25 percent of the public agreed with that statement. By 2008, that indicator of popular discontent registered 60 percent agreement, a level that has persisted to the present.  A big change.

Related to popular discontent are levels of popular trust. That’s measured by four survey questions.  How often can one trust government to do what is right?  Does government waste a lot of money?  Is government run by a few big interests?  Are those people running the government crooked?

The proportion of the US public registering high trust fell by half between 1964 and 2008 and that low trust level has persisted to today.

Eberly and I found that the trends in trust and popular discontent are highly correlated over time.  Do these trends matter?

We also discovered that the patterns of lower trust and rising popular discontent correlated with many other important and ominous trends in U.S. politics in recent decades.  These correlates included declining voting turnout, disaffection with political parties, a rise in the number of federal regulations and an increase in the number of lobbying groups.

A stunning indication of the power of low trust and popular discontent to shape U.S. politics lies in Trump’s effective capture of these themes in 2016.

The increase in regulations and lobbying groups is, for Trumpians, evidence of a growing “swamp” in D.C.  White House adviser Stephen Bannon has described “deconstructing the administrative state” as a major imperative of the Trump presidency.

It’s clear that Washington’s politics as usual proved to be a fat target for Trump’s campaign attacks in 2016.  Its unpopularity is the result of another trend we identified in our book, the rise of professional government.

A large population of highly educated professionals in Washington bureaucracies and interest groups constitute our “professional government.”  It has produced a complex, diverse and often static national governance.

The complexity of much public policy makes it difficult for many in the public to understand what their governors are doing.  A growing diversity of issues and interests creates endless dispute about every important issue as interest groups ceaselessly jostle for advantage.

Stasis often results from complexity and diversity.  That means nothing much changes, leading to public perceptions that government is unresponsive to popular needs.

The Trump movement, growing from popular discontent and low public trust of government, is now challenging the routines of our national “professional government.”  The Donald has created a big task for himself as president.

That’s because current national government has the characteristic of “institutional thickening,” a term coined by Yale political scientist Stephen Skowronek.  Entrenched, long-established networks of bureaucrats, interest groups and Congress members resist innovations proposed by the presidents governing above them, seeking to preserve the status quo they created over the years.  The growing policymaking assertions of federal courts, evident in judicial resistance to Trump’s immigration executive orders, is further evidence of this thickening.

Skowronek notes that “demands for government continue to grow apace … government itself has become one gigantic policy-generating machine.”

Trump seeks to stand thwart that system and to deconstruct it by deregulating of the bureaucracy, nominating conservative judicial appointees, and slashing many areas of domestic spending.

Can Trump prevail?  His own mercurial behavior and rogue tweets threaten to sap his authority as president.  When undertaking such a mammoth task, a president can’t afford continued unforced errors of the sort that have plagued his early presidency.

That’s because Washington’s “thick institutions” have their own ways of returning fire.  The steady stream of embarrassing leaks about Trump from the bureaucracy are a form of guerilla warfare against the president.  The media thrives on leaks.  Trump’s war with the media allows hostile bureaucrats and reporters to execute an effective tag-team resistance to the White House.

Then there’s the problem of relying of popular discontent as a vehicle to propel an ongoing political movement.  Trump thrived as an outsider decrying professional government.  But the longer he governs, the more he is likely to be viewed by his supporters as just another component part of the national government they despise.

The only solution to that problem for Trump lies in policy results that satisfy his core supporters and win new fans from among those now cool to his presidency.  That requires policy success against a “swamp” that will be happy to see him fail.

Trump is in a precarious situation, with risks and troubles looming in government and among his supporters.

Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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