Date of Degree

6-2020

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

M.A.

Program

Political Science

Advisor

Corey Robin

Subject Categories

American Politics | Constitutional Law | Political Theory | Public Affairs | Social Influence and Political Communication | Speech and Rhetorical Studies

Keywords

The rhetorical presidency, American presidency, Donald Trump, presidential rhetoric, Trump presidency, American political development

Abstract

This study is an account of the modern presidency as a source––and under Donald Trump, an accelerant––of systemic problems in American politics. Against the prevailing scholarly view of the Trump presidency as an unqualified aberration, I argue that the signal features of his efforts at governance are actually the product of converging patterns of political and institutional order. Building on seminal (but previously disjointed) work on ascriptive Americanism and the rhetorical presidency, I show that Trump represents the political synthesis of America’s ascriptive tradition and a form of presidential leadership inaugurated more than a century ago by Woodrow Wilson. Moreover, I argue that Trump’s fusion of these two predominating forces in the polity has innovated the uses of presidential demagoguery, and in turn exacerbated pre-existing dilemmas of governance. Examining the key aspects of that convergence not only underscores the pitfalls of Wilson’s leadership doctrine manifest in Trump’s case, but also marks these as accelerants of a deeper problem––a process I call constitutional decay. By rethinking the relationship between Trump as an agent of ascriptive nationalism, and the pathologies built into the modern presidency, I ultimately show how independent patterns of continuity taken for granted in American politics can come together in subtle ways that affect systemic conditions.

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