One of the key differences between the Trump administration and those of almost all of his predecessors is that for the current occupant of the White House, remaining in power has always been the primary goal. Obviously, all presidents want to remain in power and get reelected, but for most this is a goal that is balanced against others such as achieving important policies, securing a place in history and the like. Many Presidents, notably in recent years, Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan have been able to pursue these goals simultaneously.
For Trump, however, remaining in power is not just the driving force of his presidency, but it is to a large extent the only goal. This situation is exacerbated because of the historically low approval ratings that Trump has confronted since even before he took office. Additionally, unlike any other modern president, Trump took office while facing not one, but two scandals-Russia’s role in the election and his own personal conflicts of interest that in normal times would have sparked impeachment hearings. No American president has had the specter of leaving office early hang over his presidency from day one the way it has for Trump.
This means that the President’s inability to pass legislation such as the American Healthcare Act, better known as Trumpcare, his embarrassing conduct with foreign leaders, deteriorating relationships with congress and even reports of growing disharmony and tension in the White House, do not mean the same for Trump as they would for other presidents. These issues may make him less effective, but will not force him from office. While Trump’s failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and the generally slow pace of legislation during his presidency is disappointing to conservative true believers and the leadership in congress, it probably has little bearing on his political future.
The message that catapulted Trump to the top of the Republican primary field and ultimately to victory in the general election was never one of passing conservative legislation or remaking domestic policy in the image of the Cato Institute or Heritage Foundation. Rather, the promise Trump always made to his base was simply that he would be Donald Trump with all the offensiveness, bigotry and pettiness that entails. Therefore, the willful ignorance of issues, insensitivity to many Americans, insistence on crafting policy that flies in the face of scientific evidence and rude treatment of foreign leaders are not gaffes or problems for Trump. Rather these are ways Trump has kept campaign promises to his base.
Although remaining in power will be the central goal of the Trump presidency, with a Republican congress and through the executive orders, he will still probably be able to continue to push through some reactionary elements of his agenda. His recent actions regarding climate change are a good example of this. However, those policy goals will always be secondary. Accordingly it is unlikely the President will extend much political capital in service of these goals. His unwillingnesss to do that with regards to the failed America Health Care Act is illustrative of that.
While this behavior is different than that of any previous American president, it is another example of how the best precedents for the Trump presidency come not from the history of American democracy but from contemporary cases of authoritarianism and democratic rollback. A defining trait of many twenty-first century non-democratic regimes is that ideology and policy are always secondary leader to the individual leader’s need to stay in power. This obviously true of Putin’s Russia, but also of Erdogan’s Turkey and numerous non-democratic regimes scattered around the former Soviet Union and elsewhere.
In the short run, this means that Trump will likely continue to seek to delegitimize critical media outlets, deemphasize legislation, circle the wagons around himself and his core team members like Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, and focus political efforts on precluding congressional investigations. There is nothing new here, but the question of what a presidential administration committed to staying in office above all else will do when an election approaches, particularly if Trump’s poll numbers remain dismal, is something that we should probably begin thinking about sooner rather than later.
An administration that within its first three months in power, has become concerned largely about simply staying in power is capable of all kinds of things when a difficult election approaches. Based on what similar regimes have done, this likely does not mean overt election fraud, but a combination of misinformation, legal shenanigans and intimidation to ensure reelection. This may seem like an extraordinary assertion. However, given the enthusiasm with which this administration has already broken from many democratic norms, sought to undermine various institutions and question the veracity of any information that does not portray the President in a positive light, ignoring this concern altogether would be a mistake.