Can Trump's Disruption Cure Washington's Dysfunction?

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

In winning the White House, Donald Trump proved to be not only a virtuoso at advocating political change but also a maestro at manipulating institutional “disruption,” the term policy experts use to describe the interruption of normal patterns or procedures. As he assumes the presidency, will Trump be able to govern the way he campaigned for the nation’s highest office? And what impact could such an approach have on dysfunction in Washington, the broken relationships between the legislative and executive branches, that so many observers identify today?

From the moment he announced his candidacy in June 2015 through Election Day nearly 18 months later, Trump eschewed established practices and conventions each step of the way. His rapport with the Republican Party was, on good days, strained, while much of the time he seemed on a war footing vis-à-vis GOP leaders.

One of the more remarkable facts of a remarkable campaign was that Trump didn’t receive the support of George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney. The only living Republican candidate for president who supported the New York developer and television personality was former Kansas senator Bob Dole. In addition, many well-known GOP congressional figures kept their distance from the mercurial man atop the national ticket.

Despite the mutual wariness between candidate and party, Trump took advantage of the public’s lack of confidence in political institutions to increase his support. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey completed one month after the November election showed that respondents viewed both major parties more negatively than positively. In that climate, Trump didn’t need to worry about toeing any party line.

The political disruption on the party level — mirrored among Democrats with the enthusiasm for Senator Bernie Sanders, who never joined the Democratic Party — is occurring at the same time the traditional news media are undergoing profound change of the most disruptive sort. Last September the Gallup polling organization found that trust in the media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” had dropped to an all-time low — with only 14 percent of Republicans expressing either a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust.

Trump’s almost daily attacks on the mainstream media as “dishonest,” “disgusting,” “lying” and “corrupt” resonated with many voters and rendered him as a celebrity-cum-candidate eager to take on The New York Times, The Washington Post, the television networks and just about every other outlet of information. One conundrum of 2016 was Trump’s repeated savaging of the same media that devoted so much attention to him as he waged his campaign.

Along the way, this most atypical of politicians delivered his ideas and often pungent opinions by using his social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Instant messaging from a newsmaker competed against reports from professional journalists. By exploiting these disruptions in politics and journalism, Trump became both the leader of the party he kept challenging and the nation’s premier political figure that the media had to cover.

It’s possible that Trump will read the election results as a mandate for a similarly disruptive approach to governing. In the 2016 national and comprehensive exit poll, 39 percent of people interviewed said the most important factor determining their vote involved whether a candidate could “bring needed change.” Trump won a whopping 83 percent of those voters, while Hillary Clinton captured a mere 14 percent.

To a great degree, the desire for change derives from civic consternation that dysfunction has become the hallmark of governmental operations — with inaction, gridlock and stalemate the frustrating consequences of a democracy in need of root-to-branch reform.

As the Trump era begins, it will be fascinating to follow any initiatives the administration pushes to address the current dysfunction in Washington — in passing legislation, in securing entitlement funding, in confirming appointments, and all the rest. Moreover, a host of electoral problems —concerns about the process for nominating candidates, the drawing of district lines for the House of Representatives, the raising and spending of campaign money to name a few — await bipartisan solutions. The public’s eagerness for dramatic change with sensible action couldn’t be stronger, but how will elected officeholders, including the new president, respond? Might changes that seem disruptive as they occur help to restore functioning relationships between the White House and Capitol Hill?

Given Trump’s somewhat tenuous connection to the Republican Party — several commentators identify him as “the first independent president” — it’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll reach out to Democrats to strengthen support for some of his proposals. Thus far he’s avoided appointing any Democrats to positions in the administration, though he’s spoken with some about possible posts.

Interestingly, in late December The New York Times identified five distinct groups among the incoming administration’s choices to lead executive-branch departments and agencies: Disrupters, dealmakers, loyalists, establishmentarians and generals. The number of recognized “disrupters” far exceeds the other categories, a sign that those disruptive campaign practices might punctuate the conduct of governing.

Some cabinet nominees — for example, Rep. Tom Price to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development, fast food executive Andy Puzder for Labor, former Texas governor Rick Perry for Energy and school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos for Education — are on the record as opposing existing policies for their departments. To what extent will they and other appointees fundamentally change the operations of their sectors of the executive branch?

Throughout the transition, Trump has tweeted with such frequency it’s been difficult to keep up. He stayed in the public eye on his terms — and not as a result of traditional journalistic practices that defined how the news business went about its work throughout much of the 20th century. Will social media become an even more dominant communication force during the next four years, and supplant those scheduled news conferences and briefings that have provided public information since the time of Theodore Roosevelt?

The first weeks of any administration begin with far more questions than answers. Donald Trump’s unusual, unconventional and unorthodox campaign produced what promises to be an unprecedented presidency with unlimited expanses of uncharted territory. Get ready for a future of unknowable tomorrows.

Part of the Series Electing the President 2016.

Robert Schmuhl is the Walter H. Annenberg-Edmund P. Joyce Professor of American Studies and Journalism at Notre Dame. He’s the author of Statecraft and Stagecraft: American Political Life in the Age of Personality and Fifty Years with Father Hesburgh: On and Off the Record, both published by Notre Dame Press.

Originally published by Robert Schmuhl ’70 at on January 17, 2017.