The oppositional leadership styles of Trump and Biden have proved the timelessness of the political scientist Stephen Skowronek’s position, outlined in the second chapter of his 1993 masterwork The Politics Presidents Make, that the American presidency displays competing instincts. Skowronek posited that the presidency contained the potential for “order shattering,” “order affirming” and “order creating” impulses. The “order shattering” impulse derived from the office’s independence and ‘bully pulpit’ capacity, whilst the “order affirming” reflected the attempts of presidents to be “justified in constitutional terms” and respectful of the “fundamental order of things;” “order creating” stemmed from efforts to “construct some new political arrangements.” Recent political events have demonstrated the polarisation of the order shattering and order affirming impulses Skowronek attributed to the presidency in 1993. They have also highlighted partisan differences that could dominate American politics for years to come.
Although Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns often invoked Nixonian themes of law and order, Trump’s presidency celebrated the order shattering rather than the order affirming; the use of Twitter and attacks on the ‘Deep State’ all contributed to an unconventional leadership aura. Biden, contrastingly, has stressed the order affirming aspects of his office. The 46th president’s deference to expert opinion on the Covid-19 pandemic replaced the populism of anti-lockdown sentiment with an elevating of the public health officials given greater preeminence under the Bush and Obama administrations; the return of the United States to the Paris climate accords further signaled a responsible restoration of the internationalism that preceded Trump’s ‘America first’ diplomacy. Other signs of order affirmation have been more historically based. Rejecting the “American carnage” premise of Trump’s 2017 inaugural speech, Biden started his January 20 address with warnings that “democracy was precious” and “fragile,” harking back to the US’s early origins as a democratic exception in a world of hereditary monarchies.
Skowronek argued in 1993 that the greatest leaders unite the order shattering, order affirming and order creating impulses. The third category has occurred most through presidents who successfully merged the first two. Lincoln invoked the order affirming memory of the Constitution whilst shattering the institution of slavery and changed the economic and political character of the United States in the process. FDR shattered the laissez faire economic doctrines of the 1920s and provided the order of a social safety net which arguably safeguarded American capitalism from revolution, creating a new political settlement as a consequence. The 2020 election showed that order shattering and order affirming qualities are respectively embodied by the Republican and Democratic parties, resulting in a climate where political consensus is unattainable. Establishment Republican support for Biden in 2020, signalled by the “solid 46” campaign advert and the Lincoln Project’s promotional work, helped present the Democratic challenger as a responsible returner to politics pre-Trump. Trump’s campaign, conversely, would not stop order shattering; the embrace of QAnon, along with the spectacle of pandemic-ignoring mass rallies, presented a stark alternative to the staidness of Biden’s socially distanced campaign.
Recent months have proved that order affirming and order shattering rivalries have not gone away despite Trump’s defeat. Trump’s conduct on January 6 and exculpation by most Republican senators showed that the GOP had become a committed order shattering party, rejecting political norms and justifying behaviour antithetical to the Founding Fathers’ vision of the presidency. His speech to CPAC on February 21 abandoned the traditional deference to successors thought to be required by ex-presidents through false claims of victory and attacks on Biden’s presidential legitimacy. Interestingly, Trump also posited that he was more popular with his party than Reagan, the Republican Party’s previous political godfather. Trump’s political incivility and unceremonious replacement of figures previously seen as central to Republican governing orthodoxy mean the Democratic Party now has a greater claim to being an order affirmation party, trumpeting the image of political normalcy harnessed by Warren Harding just over a century ago.
How, Trump policy acolytes and supporters might ask, can the Democratic Party be seen as an order affirmation party? Conservatives of course would argue that it is the Republican Party that stands for genuinely order affirming principles that are in harmony with the Constitution and conventional positions on key issues. Surely promotion of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, along with opposition to ‘stay at home orders,’ makes hard-right GOP partisans the natural heirs and preservers of the American Revolution? The Democratic Party, in the eyes of these Trumpists, stands as the apologist for the unassimilated and ally of free speech opposing, censorious tech giants, pressing on American individualism with the corporate power challenged by Theodore Roosevelt’s progressivism over a century ago.
Yet Trump’s order shattering rejection of American democratic principles is irreconcilable with the values of the United States’ political founders. Trump’s attempt to use a conservative dominated Supreme Court to block the counting of ballots in multiple key states contradicted the Jeffersonian ideal that presidential candidates should endeavor to attain majority support of the enfranchised electorate in states sufficient to win the Electoral College. Edward Foley’s 2020 book Presidential Elections and Majority Rule: The Rise, Demise, and Potential Restoration of the Jeffersonian Electoral College emphasized that Thomas Jefferson wanted presidential candidates to obtain “support from the majority of the electorate in the states that formed the candidate’s Electoral College victory.” Republican opposition to the HR-1 bill has signaled that the GOP is unwilling to apply this philosophy to the far more comprehensive level of enfranchisement achieved in the early 21st century, a stance which perhaps stems from Trump’s precarious status as a “dubious Jeffersonian winner” in 2016.
There are historical parallels which further weaken the GOP’s connection with order affirmation. Whilst in office, Trump often claimed to be inspired by the populist president Andrew Jackson, a racist expansionist responsible for the deaths of thousands of Native Americans and a tribune of white working class men enfranchised for the first time on the frontier. Yet Trump, especially from January 6 onwards, could be better described as a 21st Century incarnation of the South Carolina nullifiers of 1832-33 or a sequel to Andrew Johnson. Johnson, a post-Civil War president who campaigned against the Fourteenth Amendment’s commitment to citizenship rights and clung to Jacksonian ideals that were outmoded in postbellum America, offers a precedent for Trump’s order shattering conduct in the face of demographic change and protection of voting minorities. The current Republican standard bearer (and that is what Trump still seems to be despite leaving office) is reminiscent of the anarchic elements of 19th century sectionalism through seeking to preserve in power, through undemocratic and demagogic means, what Ronald Brownstein summarises as an eerily Confederate sounding “coalition of restoration”.
The position of Trumpist Republicans like Tom Cotton, who balked at the strategy of objecting to electoral certification pursued by two Senate colleagues on January 6, did not prevent the GOP appearing as order shattering nullifiers of American democracy that day. A mirror image to Cotton’s futile attempt at order affirmation can be found in the left wing of the Democratic Party. Representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez refute the idea that they are part of a political coalition now overwhelmingly order affirming, merely premised on responsible governance and fulfilment of conventional American democratic lodestars. The Democratic Party, after all, has been at the forefront of expanding women’s rights, promoting racial equality and recognizing the lived experience of LGBTQ communities for nearly half a century, all pursuits which shattered a white majority and heteronormative order whilst costing them their former Southern fiefdom in presidential elections. Today, support for a public option in healthcare and the facilitation of Puerto Rican statehood would be considered policy pursuits that prove an order shattering radicalism.
Yet Biden’s order affirming rhetoric on foreign and environmental policy has offset much of the impact of order shattering voices in his party. This offsetting of the radical label has been accomplished through the defence of values frequently ascribed to the United States’s founding. Biden’s vision of challenging the authoritarianism of Russia and China, a stance he shares with anti-Trump Republicans and Democratic internationalists, reaffirms the late 18th century vision of the United States as a democratic example to the world and redoubt from illiberalism. His stress on relying on science in regard to both Covid-19 and climate change, a message accentuated by a mention of Benjamin Franklin during a February 4 State Department address, further recalls enlightenment era ideals of the US as a natural haven from established religion and haven for rational thought . Whereas Trump’s claims of defending historic American values were offset by his administration’s unprecedented quality, the orthodoxy of Biden’s positions and public image have overlapped more naturally with the dynamic of order affirmation.
If American politics remains divided between an order affirming party and an order shattering one, there are stark implications for the tenor of future political campaigns. In 2024, the next Democratic standard bearer will struggle to run the kind of anti-elitist campaign Barack Obama employed against Mitt Romney in 2012 if their party is seen as emblematic of the exurbs’s moderation, a reputation accelerated by the inroads made by Biden in affluent areas such as Colorado’s Douglas County and Pennsylvania’s Chester County. A Republican Party still loyal to Trumpism will likewise be limited in its campaign emphases; repeating the redemptive aspects of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, which pledged to restore “dignity and honour” to the White House, will be irreconcilable with rose-tinted nostalgia for the 2017-2021 period, no matter what events impact the Biden administration.
One reason why the split between the order affirming and the order shattering might not continue is that political parties have shifted from nominating order shattering to order affirming figures before, sometimes over the course of consecutive elections. The defiant libertarianism of Barry Goldwater in 1964 was replaced by the order affirming pragmatism signaled by Richard Nixon in 1968, whilst a comparable shift followed George McGovern’s landslide 1972 loss in the form of the technocratic populist Jimmy Carter in 1976. Donald Trump’s order shattering 2016 campaign followed the rehashing of Reaganite conservatism and general order affirming overtones of Mitt Romney in 2012. Yet the polarity evident since the 2020 presidential election could prove long-lasting, especially if Trump influences the GOP primaries in 2024. The findings from the January 2021 American Perspectives Survey show that 39% of Republicans support Americans taking violent actions if elected leaders fail to act. This is more than twice the 17% of Democrats who endorse this stance, a statistic which undermines allegations that Democratic Party supporters have been the greater backers of lawlessness since the 2020 BLM protests. Moreover, it highlights that the GOP has become more devoted to the shattering of constitutional and democratic norms. The events of January 6 gave Biden the opportunity of refashioning his party as purely order affirming; yet they also highlighted the divide that threatens to fuel US politics for years to come.
Dr. Thomas J. Cobb is an academic writing tutor and module lecturer at Coventry University in the United Kingdom and the author of American Cinema and Cultural Diplomacy: The Fragmented Kaleidoscope (2020); he has convened and taught American Studies modules at the University of Birmingham in the West Midlands; his research interests encompass American foreign policy and diplomacy, the allegorical role of Hollywood cinema since the Vietnam War and synergies between popular culture and US political dynamics; he has published articles in both American Studies and Film Studies journals, including American Studies in Scandinavia and Film International.