Studying the Trump Presidency

 /  Oct. 16, 2017, 3:42 p.m.


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Professor Patricia Conley is a lecturer in the University of Chicago Political Science department, where she teaches a course on research methods as well as the highly popular class, “Evaluating the Candidates in the 2016 Presidential Election.” She received her Ph.D. from UChicago and returned to campus in the fall of 2015. Prior to working at UChicago, she was on the political science faculty at Northwestern University. She is the author of Presidential Mandates: How Elections Shape the National Agenda. The Gate’s Saisha Talwar sat down with Professor Conley to talk about her class and how the election of Donald Trump is changing the academic study of the presidency.

The Gate: I understand that this course, “Evaluating the Candidates in the 2016 Presidential Election,” has been offered since spring of 2015?

Professor Conley: I first taught the course in the spring of 2015, during the presidential primaries, as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were clinching the Democratic and Republican Party nominations. I have continued to teach the course now that we are further into the Trump presidency.

Gate: What initially drove you to offer the course?

Conley: My major areas of interest within American politics are the presidency, elections, and American political development. I wanted to teach a seminar on my own academic interests that would also be relevant to current political events. I decided to set it up so that we read the presidency literature as we evaluate the current pool of presidential candidates. For instance, when we discuss transforming leadership, we look at Bernie Sanders. When we discuss leadership in business, we look at Donald Trump’s skill set and read a bit of The Art of the Deal. We read recent articles on the current political scene in journals like Foreign Affairs and the Atlantic Monthly. I think it is more interesting for students to use contemporary examples instead of focusing solely on presidents that served well before they were born. We also use the recent candidates to evaluate and reflect on the presidency literature. Can presidency scholars help us figure out which candidates are going to be successful presidents?

Gate: Do you think the election of Donald Trump changes the way in which scholars are evaluating successful candidates and presidents?

Conley: I‘m not sure he will change much about how we evaluate the ingredients of successful presidential leadership once in office because he is such an outlier. For instance, previous presidents set the policy agenda, but President Trump says that he is waiting for Congress to send him something to sign. Trump is a majority-party president who does not work with his own party leadership. He fights against the bureaucracy—which is part of the executive branch— and belittles the members of his cabinet. He attacks the media. He has insulted foreign leaders, NFL players, and the pope. While all presidents work to please their party base, they usually also make some attempt to promote national unity and reach out with compassion to all Americans. President Trump is different. His behavior is very unusual—and his approach is not helping him get anything done. So I don’t think presidency scholars will rush to revise their theories of success once in office.

Gate: Do you think President Trump’s personal style will shift the academic framework?

Conley: Well, he was a successful presidential candidate even though he broke many of the norms of basic civility during the campaign and has no political experience. This may change the way candidates at all levels behave in the future. We won’t know until we live through the midterm elections and the next presidential election. With respect to success in office, studies of presidential personality have faded in recent years because Congress, the bureaucracy, and courts can stymie even the most charismatic and well-adjusted presidents. President Trump’s behavior, however, does focus our attention on traits such as impulsiveness that tend to make presidents less successful. I’m not sure it will change scholarship in the long run, but certainly many people are focused on figuring out how much damage Trump might do instead of how much positive change he might bring about. We’re learning more about checks and balances.

Gate: Let’s say President Trump is not re-elected and a more traditionalist candidate is put in his place. How do you imagine scholars attempting to study the past four years?

Conley: If a more traditional politician succeeds President Trump, the political establishment would probably revert back to politics as usual. Hey—that’s what Trump voters hate! But we would have more stability and cohesiveness in domestic policy goals and international affairs. Most likely, that person would surround him or herself with more experienced staff and work closely with their party in Congress. If that happens, the Trump presidency will continue to be treated as an outlier. On the other hand, only time will tell us the historical implications of the Trump presidency for executive power. It could be a turning point for the re-emergence of congressional leadership. We won’t know until we experience a few more administrations.

I think the Trump presidency impacts the study of elections and American public opinion as much as the study of the presidency, no matter what happens next. What underlies the polarization of American voters and their representatives in Congress? Should we abandon the Electoral College? How are income inequality and racism affecting vote choice and policy preferences? Trump’s election definitely shifts the focus in a variety of fields in American politics beyond the presidency.

Gate: Now that it’s over two years since you first taught the course, how do you imagine the discussion shifting? Is the title as relevant or, if you could, would you change it in any way?

Conley: I should change the title! I admit that I kept it because I'm locked into the title to keep the course number. But if I could change it, perhaps I would name it simply “Evaluating Presidential Candidates” or “Presidential Leadership,” because the general questions are always relevant. How do we define presidential leadership and success? Why are some presidents judged to be more successful than others? Which presidents changed the office and why? Are presidents too powerful or not powerful enough?

Of course, the discussion does shift because each president is so unique and each year poses different leadership challenges. International conflict and economic crisis are somewhat unpredictable. Some presidents try to undo their predecessor’s agenda while other presidents try to complete it. Presidential candidates are also different, so the discussion of leadership potential changes with new examples.

Certainly the discussion of Trump is different now than when I first taught the course. During the primaries, we read about business leadership and how those kinds of skills would translate to executive branch leadership. This was something that Trump himself promoted. We spent equal time on all of the top candidates from both parties. Now that Trump is in office, we will spend more time evaluating Trump’s leadership skills in particular. Did his skill in business help him as president? Why or why not? We will also be able to discuss Trump as an example when we cover things like presidential leadership in foreign policy.

What most fascinates me about the current political climate is what appears to be a leadership vacuum. For whatever reasons, the members of the Trump administration are not leading a policy agenda through Congress. Republicans are divided and their leadership cannot rally a majority to pass their major campaign promises. Executive branch positions go unfilled. On foreign policy, there is no unified or coherent message. It’s really hard to figure out what’s going on. Chaos makes it difficult to study leadership! At least there’s always something new and unusual to talk about.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity. This interview has been edited for content and clarity. The featured image is licensed under the Creative Commons; the original image can be found here.


Saisha Talwar

Saisha is a third year studying political science. This past summer, she interned with ABC News' Political Unit in Washington DC. Previously, Saisha worked at Dow Jones and the McKinsey Social Initiative. On campus, she is a research intern at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, Director of the Maroon Project on Security and Threats, and a tour guide for the admissions office. Saisha enjoys traveling and consuming unhealthy amounts of flaming hot cheetos.


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