January 21, 2017

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The Untethered Executive

We have entered a stage of American politics that we have never seen. Whether one loves him, hates him, is terrified or overjoyed to see him in power, one thing we would be wise to acknowledge is that we've never had a president so untethered from the requirements of political patronage as Donald Trump.
 
Political patronage is the dispensation of favors or rewards such as public office, jobs, contracts, subsidies, prestige or other valued benefits by a regime (who controls their dispensation) to a client. It's a natural aspect of political legitimacy.
 
Legitimacy is a word we have been hearing a lot about these last few weeks. In political science, legitimacy is that which gives and sustains a regime's power. Without it, a regime doesn't have the authority to use coercive power. It's the difference between a criminal and a king in the eyes of the law and the people.
 
The legitimacy of a regime hinges on two sources: either on shared values and normative principles, or patronage. Normative principles are the shared views we have on representative government and the traditions that have been laid out over the past 240 years here in America. The electoral process, the procedures, and laws that a people have to agree upon, and a regime must fulfill, are the normative principles required for legitimacy. While some question President Trump on these matters because of accusations of Russian meddling and so on - President Trump has fulfilled these requirements. He was elected, he is legally qualified, and thus has "normative legitimacy."
 
Patronage is how regimes hold power through distributing the spoils of power to important allies who support them. It's why the lordship existed in feudal times, why soviet officials received cushy benefits and preferential treatment, and how banana republic kleptocracies run. It's even how American politics works in part.
 
All regimes use both. One could argue all regimes actually need both to stay in power. In each case, the proportion of each may vary, but generally, as patronage becomes the larger share, corruption and decline become the trend.
 
This is why we are in such fascinating times right now. Trump has become the 45th President requiring less patronage as a source of legitimacy than any executive I know of. This at a time in history where the executive branch has become as powerful as any time since the Civil War.
 
As a lifelong student of politics, I can't stress how categorically dissimilar this inauguration is to any other we have seen.
 
The ramifications are extraordinary. A powerful executive untethered to political patronage to this degree is unprecedented. It's one reason we are all witnessing panic amongst the power centers in America. Particularly those power centers used to patronage.
 
While we may justifiably fear a strong executive, it's not necessarily the case that such a President has any more authority than all the others. There's actually a strong case to be made that because Trump lacks support from power centers in America, he's at a distinct disadvantage.
 
But he is not beholden to them in the same way other have. That has become clear to this point.
Whether terrified, overjoyed or a mix of both, these are fascinating times we are living in.

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