This article is produced and financed by NTNU Norwegian University of Science and Technology - read more
Why Trump does what he does
Donald Trump denies that he has lost the election, gives the boot to people who aren’t loyal enough and doesn’t help his successor get started. Why?
It’s not exactly the norm for an outgoing President not to help the President-elect get started.
“No,” says, Torbjørn Lindstrøm Knutsen, a professor at NTNU’s Department of Sociology and Political Science. “This is unique in American politics. There was real controversy over the outcome of a presidential election in the United States only one other time, and that was when Abraham Lincoln was elected.”
For that we have to go back 160 years, to 1860 and a civil war that was coming ever closer. The reason then – as now – was that the country was so deeply divided politically that the election winner was considered illegitimate by his political opponents.
“Questions were being asked about the actual election process. But the reason for the controversy surrounding Lincoln was that political groups in the United States didn’t accept him as a legitimate candidate in the first place. This was an expression of a deep political division in American politics. And I think the nation’s lack of value consensus is the underlying cause of the strife this time as well,” Lindstrøm Knutsen says.
“Although we shouldn’t stretch the comparison too far, the current situation is dangerous,” says Jennifer Leigh Bailey, a professor in NTNU’s Department of Sociology and Political Science.
She agrees that we have to go back to 1860 to find anything similar.
Opponents get the boot
Besides refusing to accept the election results and fighting agains helping Biden’s people get started, President Trump fired his defence secretary; several other leaders in defence left in recent weeks, and there continues to be speculation that Trump will also act against the CIA and FBI.
Why does Trump behave like this?
“The short answer is that he’s not really right in the head, and this has been crystal clear for four years now. A more academic answer is that Trump seems to remove his opponents from office and make space for his own supporters,” says Lindstrøm Knutsen.
Indeed, Trump may have very logical reasons for acting in violation of common custom.
Gets his own people in
“Trump’s policy has always been to get his own people into governing bodies at both the federal level and the state level. For example, he’s appointed a good number of conservative judges at various levels of the judicial system – the Supreme Court, circuit courts and district courts. They can’t simply be removed and replaced. It seems that the military’s top leaders have a lukewarm relationship with Trump, but he has supporters at the level below,” says Lindstrøm Knutsen.
CNN is among the news media that have expressed concern that Trump is now placing his own people in prominent defence positions.
“We should note that CNN is not a neutral news source here,” says Lindstrøm Knutsen. He believes CNN has turned into a strong critic of Trump and should be regarded more as a critical commentary body than an impartial news channel in its coverage of POTUS.
Reversals not easy
Changing these legal and military appointments once Biden – more than likely – takes over on 20 January won’t necessarily be that easy for him and his team. Biden faces other challenges as well.
“The power relationship between the President and Congress after the election is such that Biden will hardly be able to get anything much accomplished without relying on the House’s narrow Democratic majority to the max and also issuing executive orders where they’re putting their greatest efforts,” Lindstrøm Knutsen says. (See Fact box.)
The US Congress consists of two chambers. Democrats hold a majority in the House of Representatives. The exact balance in the Senate remains to be determined in January, but the Republicans are likely to retain their majority.
Republicans might just opt to block
“With the Senate under Republican control, they can prevent Biden from appointing federal judges, as well as secretaries, ambassadors and a number of other positions,” said Bailey. “On the flip side, Biden can do a lot through presidential orders. He can build up state capacity again.”
But Biden could get into trouble if Congress doesn’t approve a budget.
“It all depends on how the Republicans and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell choose to behave.” Bailey points out that in the last two years of Obama’s term, they tried to block everything they could.
“The future looks precarious to me,” she says.
Banana Republican Party?
A major question now is what happens before and after 20 January. Trump is currently positioning himself for the time after the inauguration, and several media outlets have speculated whether he will run for president again in four years.
Many Republican politicians are reluctant to publicly criticize this president, who is popular among voters. There is good reason to believe that numerous politicians still worry that Trump could harm them and their own chances of re-election in various ways.
“I’m keeping my eyes on the Republicans, where the members now have to decide whether to distance themselves from the president or to join him in a new, Banana Republican party,” says Lindstrøm Knutsen.
Executive orders are direct orders from the President that federal agencies are required to carry out.
The frequency of their use varies from president to president. Franklin D. Roosevelt issued over 3700 of them, while Barack Obama settled for 277 in eight years. Donald Trump is currently at just under 200 during his almost four years.
This article is produced and financed by NTNU
NTNU - Norwegian University of Science and Technology is one of 77 owners of ScienceNorway.no. Its communication staff provide content to forskning.no. We label this content clearly to distinguish institutional outreach from independent editorial content. Read more about this arrangement here.