Trump class #2: Trump and the separation of powers

For our second class (which met a few weeks ago), I assigned the following readings.

Levitsky & Loxton, Populism and Competitive Authoritarianism in the Andes, Democratization, 20, 107 (2013)

Corrales & Penfold-Becerra, Venezuela: Crowding Out the Opposition. Journal of Democracy, 18, 99 (2007)

Valenzuela, Latin American Presidencies Interrupted, Journal of Democracy, 15, 5 (2004)

Pepinsky, Life in Authoritarian States Is Mostly Boring and Tolerable, Vox, Jan. 9, 2017

Feldenkirchen et al., Donald Trump Is the World’s Most Dangerous Man, Spiegel Online, Feb. 1, 2016

Blackman, Donald Trump’s Constitution of One, National Review, May 12, 2016

Brownstein, The Formidable Checks and Balances Imposing on President Trump, Atlantic, Feb. 16, 2017

The question I wanted to discuss is, What happens when a populist figure comes to power in a system characterized by separation of powers? Latin America seemed like a good place to look. In most (all?) Latin American countries, a presidential system prevails, unlike in Europe and elsewhere, where parliamentarianism is the norm. And the answer, if the Latin American example holds, is that the leader clashes with the legislature and the judiciary, which typically remain in the hands of the elites. Either gridlock or institutional damage results. Political scientists use the label “competitive authoritarianism” to capture a common feature of these regimes: while different groups compete for power and sometimes take turns (unlike in a real dictatorship), the group in power uses the resources of the state to suppress opposition and give itself advantages during the next election. Venezuela is Exhibit A.

Whatever one thinks of Trump, or our current political system, the U.S. seems far from a system of competitive authoritarianism in the Latin American style. It might help that, apparently at least, the Republicans control both the presidency and Congress. But the apparent unity masks a significant divergence: the congressional Republicans belong to the elites, while Trump won the election on a populist platform. It is becoming clear that Trump will either need to abandon his populist policies or clash with his nominal allies in Congress. The failure of Obamacare repeal may be the first sign of gridlock. The showdown over the budget, which centers around Trump’s popular but absurd promise to build a border wall, may be another.