Changing Their Minds? Donald Trump and Presidential Leadership, George C. Edwards III

Reviewed by Douglas L. Kriner


Donald J. Trump has been called many things during his iconoclastic political career, but perhaps the most shocking would be to label him “generalizable.” In this timely and important book, George C. Edwards III concludes just that. Despite Trump's showman's bravado, new media savvy, and self-proclaimed mastery of “the art of the deal,” Edwards shows, Trump was no more successful than his predecessors in moving public opinion. Edwards offers a trenchant assessment of Trump's failed legislative leadership that ultimately cost the nation dearly.

Edwards's broader argument, developed over the course of 40 years of scholarship' is that bold, independent presidential leadership, be it of public opinion or of Congress, is mostly chimerical. Presidents rarely create opportunities for major change. Rather, they must content themselves with exploiting opportunities already open to them in a political environment largely beyond their control.

Particularly in terms of opinion leadership, Trump would seem to offer a tough case for Edwards's argument. None of his predecessors could match Trump's mastery of new media and his ability to speak directly to millions of Americans through Twitter. Similarly, few could rival his ability to manipulate and dominate traditional media, ensuring that he was constantly at the center of the national stage. And yet, by amassing and analyzing a trove of opinion data, Edwards shows, time and again, Trump failing to move the dial. From tax cuts to health care reform, from immigration to trade, Trump's appeals—often equal parts provocative, misleading, and incendiary—routinely fell on deaf ears and failed to rally public opinion to his side. In important respects—particularly his brazen willingness to sow misinformation, stoke racial and ethnic division, and question the legitimacy of democratic institutions—Trump's rhetorical presidency was extraordinary. Yet, it was far more destructive than constructive, coarsening discourse and undermining many Americans' faith in our democratic system while failing to rally the country behind any meaningful program for change.

In the legislative realm, Edwards argues that Trump entered office with a narrow path to success. Trump's partisan allies controlled both chambers of Congress, but these majorities were small, the party was divided on key issues, and Democrats had little impetus to compromise. Trump campaigned on his unparalleled skills as a deal maker. Yet, because of inconsistent messaging, frequent and sudden reversals, and an often passive approach to building support on Capitol Hill, he routinely failed to make good on those promises in office. Trump's combative instinct sabotaged momentary impulses to seek bipartisan deals with “Chuck and Nancy.” And he routinely put into practice his telling admission that he saw real power as the ability to instill fear when trying to lead his own party. Ultimately, Trump got his corporate tax cut and scored several modest victories. But key priorities, including repealing and replacing Obamacare, cracking down on illegal immigration, and rebuilding the nation's failing infrastructure, never came to fruition.

Was Trump doomed to fail? Perhaps a more skillful president could have threaded the needle and eked out a few more wins in a challenging political environment. However, Edwards at least foreshadows another possibility. While Trump ran as a populist, he governed as a conservative. Some of Trump's proposals, including promises to expand paid parental leave, reduce prescription drug prices, and rebuild the nation's crumbling infrastructure, enjoyed considerable public and bipartisan support. Candidate Trump's very ideological heterodoxy may have given him unique opportunities to exploit—but this was a road not taken.

Ultimately, rather than being evidence of Trump's unique unfitness for the office and failings, Edwards concludes, Trump's experience reflects broader lessons about the limits of presidential persuasion and influence.

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