Two student political groups on campus — the Bowdoin College Democrats and Bowdoin College Republicans — recently asked a panel of government professors to speak about President Donald Trump’s rise to power and speculate on how his presidency may change the US and possibly shift the world order.
The event was moderated by Marisa O’Toole ’17 and Jack Lucy ’17. The panel consisted of Associate Professor of Government Michael Franz, John F. and Dorothy H. Magee Associate Professor of Government Laura Henry, Thomas Brackett Reed Professor of Government Andrew Rudalevige, Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Rebecca Gibbons, Associate Professor of Government Jeffrey Selinger, and Gary M. Pendy Professor in Social Sciences, Government and Legal Studies Jean Yarbrough.
The moderators asked a series of questions. The professors spoke and debated for roughly 80 minutes. Listen to the full audio here.
Jack Lucy: How did Donald Trump win? Why didn’t Hillary Clinton win?
Michael Franz: There are a lot of theories that one could posit, but the one that has the most purchase right now is the rise of populism and the anti-elite sentiment that appears in many other industrialized democracies.
Jean Yarbrough: Donald Trump had a better sense of what was required to win the election via the electoral college, and he was able to make the right calls in terms of the places where he went to reach out to voters….[Also] despite Obama’s claim that she was the most qualified person to be running for presidency ever — and that would include Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and FDR, which was preposterous on its face — [Clinton] was a terrible Secretary of State. Almost everything she touched disintegrated in her hands: Libya, the Russian reset, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan. I cannot think of many policy triumphs she had. And then there was the business of the secret server, which was mind boggling….Then there was the Clinton Global Initiative with the pay-to-play that came out toward the end of the election. And then there was her own comment about the basket of deplorables. So I think it added up to a lackluster candidacy on one hand and then with all this populist ferment going on, there was a groundswell of support [for Trump] in the places that mattered.
Andy Rudalevige: Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote across the country but her vote was very poorly distributed from an electoral college point of view — it was very inefficient. She was counting on the blue wall of the northern Midwest.
Jeff Selinger: Of course the email situations was indeed unseemly and reflects terrible judgment…and yeah, it is quite possible that foreign governments and all sorts of characters gave money to a charity, the Clinton Foundation, and in exchange they got access to the Secretary of State — but that sounds like our campaign finance system!…There is nothing worse than we see every day, and have seen for some time in Congress. You compare that with a record of a figure who we have good reason to believe is a sexual predator. A figure who has stolen from many contractors he’s worked with. A figure who would not share his tax records…My suspicion is that certain qualities of our new media landscape made it possible to demonize one [candidate] and elevate another.
Marisa O’Toole: How should we view Donald’s Trump’s unprecedented use of Twitter in his campaign? Is this a Trump thing, or a sign of more to come on what communications platform is most effective in American politics these days?
Michael Franz: It had an effect of driving media coverage to him. So the coverage was aggressive, and by some estimates he got billions of coverage equivalent to what he would have had to pay if he had paid for TV ads, and this countered the media deployment Clinton had, which was a very traditional TV strategy. She out-aired him four or five to one, but he was able to counteract that with social media.
Jean Yarbrough: [Tweeting is] one way of getting around the mainstream press…What you’re seeing now is finding a way to appeal directly to the people that can bypass not just the money advantage but also the media advantage.
Laura Henry: I think what is interesting is how Trump is changing the nature of political communication not just domestically but globally as well. His tweets really rattled foreign leaders during the campaign, but now I think people are starting to calm down and wait to see if any action follows. China is leading the charge on this. He has had some very negative tweets about China — about their trade policy, their treatment of North Korea — and they have had opinion pieces in major Chinese media outlets kind of shrugging and making fun of Trump’s twitter diplomacy, saying it doesn’t mean anything.
Rebecca Gibbons: Doing foreign policy by tweet is not a good idea, and hasn’t worked out for Trump, and eventually leaders will ignore what he is tweeting about and wait to see what actually happens…And I hope the media starts ignoring it as well.
Jack Lucy: How can we understand the resurgence of [nationalism] that many people thought was a relic of the past?
Laura Henry: We are seeing this global rise of populism and nationalism…and people debate the causes of it. Is it linked to globalization — is it primarily economic? Or is it more cultural and more to do with a concern about loss of identity, loss of traditional cultural practices?…The challenge of this [populist and nationalist] rhetoric — that we want to dismantle this post-WWII, post-Cold War world order, this governance system because it is a burden, and we’re bogged down and we’re paying for it — neglects how much we have gained from it in terms of free trade, in terms of security, in terms of projection of soft power. And this world where everyone becomes a self-interested nation state and makes bilateral deals with each other and lets the strongest state win is a deal that is much better for weaker powers than it is for the US. The US has benefitted tremendously from being able to dictate the terms of global governance, of international law — and to throw that away is problematic.
Rebecca Gibbons: You would expect weaker states to engage in this behavior. The US is the architect, the promoter, the champion of this post WWII order….The US, even though it is the most powerful nation by many measures, we can still say it is declining relatively because its piece of the economic pie is shrinking over time as other states rise. You would think a leader of the US would want to hold onto that and see this as way for the US to maintain power in the international system. Instead we’re joining other states around the world, with this nationalism and populism. What that is going to do is make America’s decline occur even faster, because we’re not bolstering these institutions that we get a disproportionate benefit from.
Jean Yarbrough: One reason countries want to recover their national power is because their citizens are so unhappy that they’ve ceded so much of it. A world without politics is not a world without power decisions, and power decisions are now made by faceless, nameless, unaccountable bureaucrats. As for the US and our post-WWII arrangements,…we took on the major responsibility for protecting the Western Bloc as it was called, with the result that the Western powers were largely able to abandon any concern with their own defense….What happens is [other NATO nations] don’t have the problem of having to fund a military and are able more easily to develop social democracies. Then we in America say, ‘They have social democracies! They have better child care. They have better social security. They have better social programs.’ They don’t have any defense budgets!
Andy Rudalevige: Another big aspect of globalization is corporate interests and the globalized economy, the ability for international corporations to move jobs more or less at will. That is a system underwritten by the US and the WTO….The post-WWII free trade order was designed to help us, and now the argument in some quarters is that it is not helping us, it’s hurting us. Your steel mill has moved elsewhere and you have no recourse.
Marisa O’Toole: Why didn’t polling predict [the Trump presidency]? Is this a sign that something needs to change in the polling sphere?
Michael Franz: If you look at national polling, it was not that far off from final result. The polls shifted in the last few days, after the Comey letter, toward Trump, and narrowed the race to a slight Clinton win in the popular vote. And that is what happened….But those national votes are meaningless because of the electoral college. And the state polls were more off….So the state polls were wrong [particularly in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania]. But why? One answer is to blame the industry itself — the polling industry is just falling off the cliff, they can’t find people who are representative of the electorate….Those things are possibly part of the story. But the other evidence suggests, and this supports the polling industry more generally — which is desperately trying to stay relevant in a world where people screen their calls—…is that late deciders broke toward Trump. What happened in the last few days, the controversy around the FBI, might have convinced a number of people who didn’t want to commit to Clinton — because they didn’t like her but who may have voted for her if there had been no controversy — decided to go for broke and vote for Trump….The state polls may have been wrong in those places because they didn’t pick up the late movement, because that’s impossible to pick up.
Jack Lucy: Did a political realignment occur in 2008 and 2016? Or just a temporary blip?
Jeff Selinger: Was 2008 or 2016 a realignment? No, on both. There is better jargon to use here….there is a change in every election. A better way of conceptualizing this or putting this moment in history would be to think of Donald Trump as a disjunctive president, that is, a president who is affiliated with a partisan regime — in this case, a Reagan republican regime — that is fractured and quite vulnerable….It had a great standing among American people in the 1980s but there has been a degree of strain and now you have deep fissures….When there are deep divisions, they will come forth once there is a budget, between Trump and congressional Republicans and Republicans more generally across the country, about what the priorities of the party should be. ….There are deep fissures, and you have a set of policy prescriptions that might come out of a schedule of priorities that are not popular, like more tax cuts for wealthier Americans? Deregulation? The question is how popular are these ideas among the mass public? When they involve meaningful trade off, spending tradeoffs, whether its medicare, social security, Obamacare, these are not popular priorities….Those presidents in history who have been situated in this way are called by some scholars as disjunctive presidents and they are, not through any fault of their own, policy failures and political failures — Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover, James Buchanan. My answer to your question is no, and a disjunctive presidency is on its way.
Marisa O’Toole: Trump has denounced both the UN and NATO and several other institutions as outdated, saying that members are not paying their faire share. Is there any validity to these criticisms, and how do you think Trump and his administration might change or adapt to these institutions?
Rebecca Gibbons: In terms of his criticisms of NATO, saying that they need to spend more, that is not something that Trump started. Obama has said that, other leaders have said that — that criticism has gone on a long time….Only 10 NATO countries pay over 2 percent. The US pays the most, like 22 percent. So I think we will see a change in that, partly because of the threat posed by Russia.
Laura Henry: If you’re interested in what Trump will actually do [regarding NATO], here’s what you should keep your eye on. Obama committed to having NATO troops in Poland and the three Baltic states to deter the Russians. And these troops are rotating through because NATO promised never to have permanent troops in this area. This will cost money….The German, the French, the Dutch, the British — they’re all there, rotating through. We have made a budget committment to that, and that will need to be renewed….Look and see what [Trump} actually does, what he actually funds.
Marisa O’Toole: Do you think Trump and Putin are likely to be allies and what are the implications of a closer relation between the US and Russia?
Laura Henry: We’re in the midst of a bromance, this mutual admiration. ‘I’m strong, you’re strong! I’m popular, you’re popular! I’m decisive, you’re decisive! I’m unpredictable, you’re unpredictable!’ The challenge here is these are two leaders who are both going to aggressively pursue their national interest. In the longer term we have to measure where national interest actually coincides, and when you start to do that the picture gets a lot more murky….What are other areas we could cooperate? ISIS, Iran, China? When you peel back the onion on each of these issues, you see that actually the superficial shared interest there is very thin indeed….So what happens when national interest meets national interest?….I predict a period of pretty warm relations, a little like when Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. Like a little reset and then the inevitably degradation.
Andy Rudalevige: It’ll be interesting to see whether a Republican Congress is interested in following up on the allegations of election interference. There has been noise about that…Clearly President Trump is trying to push that aside.
Marisa O’Toole: Should we be concerned with this apparent rift between the [president] and and media? Have we seen anything like this in past history?
Michael Franz: I think we should be very concerned, for lots of reasons, about the way we are asked to evaluate and accumulate information in this current political environment. The Trump administration [dispels] any sort of information that is negative against them as either fake news or mistruths. It’s the exemplification of a trend we noticed in American politics in the last number of years where people are self-segregating into the news that reconfirms their political dispositions. It has now blown up where we simply argue that the other side is lying or just false….It is undermining peoples faith in the accuracy of information and that is going to have feedback effect on people’s willingness to participate in politics.
Andy Rudalevige: All presidents hate the media to a certain degree, and have tried various means over time to go around the media and try to speak directly to the public. We’ve talked about that with tweeting, but you can go to the radio, television, the Internet, the Obama website videos, where’s he trying to get his message out without the mediation of commentators or journalists.
Jean Yarbrough: You do have a media that is overwhelmingly to the left. It’s democratic, it is oppositional, it is oppositional to everyone…but it is more so when there is a Republican in office…especially when it is a Republican as provocative as Trump is….You really should read the New York Times, read the Wall Street Journal, read journals on the left and right, try to sort through what the news is…what the truth is.
Michael Franz: There’s a healthy debate in social science research on the liberal skew of the mainstream media. There has been some stuff that has tried to measure that and has found slight liberal bias in mainstream media. There are others that contest that evidence….But when I saw Sean Spicer come out the day after the inauguration and make an argument about the size of the inaugural crowds, and the strength in which he made that argument, I thought we are in a bizarre world….We have seen media criticisms before, but this is just weird, and I fear we’re just at the beginning of it. There are plenty of people willing to believe whatever their side says, and that’s a problem on both sides.
Marisa O’Toole: From the women’s sister marches to the recent protests against the immigration ban, we’re seeing an upswing in social movements. Can these movements produce real political change and can we compare these movements to protests in the ’60s and ’70s?
Laura Henry: It is not surprising that these movements have emerged. Whenever the institutional pathways to representation are closed, social movements tend to emerge. So when one party controls the executive and legislative branch you tend to get social movements on the other side….Yet it is a huge coalition. That is both its strength and one of its greatest weakness — whether it can actually stay together over time, and whether it can actually agree on priorities and what should be done. It also faces an enormous challenge that differentiates it from movements of the ’60s and ’70s, in that it is largely a defensive movement. It is not a movement that is trying to expand rights as much as trying to prevent the erosion of rights. In that sense the work is harder and victories will be less clear and it will harder to keep people engaged in this movement.
Jack Lucy: Do you have any parting words of wisdom, any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Jeff Selinger: It is really important that you go to Factcheck.org. The reason why it’s so important is because it is important to be able to identify the very important departures we’re seeing with this particular president — the departures from the norm, what we would expect from normal Democrats or normal Republicans….It is very important that there is a principled conservative party or principled liberal or progressive party. It’s essential for the Republic as a whole, it’s essential for democracy. It is very dangerous when the representative voice of either of those two parties willfully and quite consciously directs his fire at any number of venerable institutions that we have taken for granted until now, whether it’s the media, the idea of an oppositional party, an independent federal judiciary. Some of the things we’re seeing and hearing from this particular administration represents something that’s unprecedented in American history….It is vital for the longterm interests of the Republic to have dignified, spirited and principled representatives at the top.
Michael Franz: I’m a big believer in the longterm viability and integrity of our political institutions. I think this country is strong and will remain strong and we can weather lots of different storms and have done so….But I have also decided one of the messages I’d like to remind people is a very simple one that we sometimes forget when we’re looking at sexier solutions — you should always vote. You should vote in every election that you can possibly can. You may not like your choices, but that’s okay. You should still vote. I treat election day as a fun holiday for myself, I enjoy voting….I like the elegance of casting a ballot and having my voice counted….You should never miss that chance, whether it’s for the school board or county coroner, whatever it is, make your voice heard and participate in that wonderful thing.