Grabbing America by the Institutions? A Narrative Investigation from the Ivory Tower

Jessica A. Andrepont & Michael D. Jones

Oregon State University

It is hardly a controversial thing to say that Donald Trump is a controversial President. Trump has a growing list of labels including fascist, narcissist, incompetent, child-like, and a destroyer, among others. His lack of regard for women, the disabled, communities of color, and grammar add onion-like layers to his controversy. Putting aside the name calling for a moment, when we distill these criticisms we find two themes that seem to stand above normal partisan insults. Trump is criticized for playing fast and loose with the truth and for his contempt for American institutions. Charged with these qualities, his critics have argued that he is a threat to democratic governance, with some going so far as to label him an extinction-level event. Others, more hopeful, argue that American institutions are resilient and that President Trump will be little more than an embarrassing chapter in American history.

So is President Trump really a threat to American democracy and, if so, how might we assess the threat? We think narrative theory in public policy can help answer these questions.

First, however, we must assess the accuracy of claims made by his critics. Turns out that there is really good data to do so, much of which comes from Trump himself (have you seen the Donald’s Twitter feed?).

Does Trump play Fast and Loose with the Facts?

Popularizing the phrase “alternative truths” (AT), the Trump administration, self-admittedly, has a fluid understanding of reality. What isn’t clear, however, is if AT’s are offered out of ignorance or if they are strategic. The strategic argument is supported by AT’s that contradict existing expert and scientific authorities in support of some policy Trump supports. Examples here include crime, climate change, immigration, and trade policy. We define ignorant AT’s as those serving no clear policy purpose. Examples here include his alternate rendition of Andrew Jackson’s presidency or the implied assertion that Frederick Douglass was still alive. Either way, the bedrock underneath President Trump’s reality is apparently the Donald’s will.

Does Trump Show Contempt for US Institutions?

Trump has said himself that the US Constitution is “…really a bad thing for the country”. He has regularly maligned the media as “fake news,” questioned the impartiality of the judicial system, harangued the Congress, cast unfounded aspersions on the ethics of the former President, and generally dismissed the validity of scientific research. We think it is fair to say that President Trump does not have high regard for the current configuration of American institutions—apparently any of them.

Is Donald Trump a threat to Democracy?

Going back to some of the names Trump has been called, one of them is postmodern. Bear with us for a paragraph or so; it takes a bit of pretentious academic jargon to explain what this label actually means (sucks, but it is kind of necessary).

Postmodernism is a rejection of 17th century Enlightenment principles and modernity, the philosophical pillars upon which the U.S. is founded. The basis of this rejection is simple. For the postmodern, there is no authority that can establish the superiority of one claim over another—not religion, not government, not reason, not science, not culture, only power secures dominance. If your opinion or argument is superior to another, it is only through power—whether by force, coercion, or trickery—that you will have established it as so. Thus, there is no truth, only different perspectives with varying degrees of power. From here postmodernism rebels against all established authority—cultural, governmental, religious, scientific, ethical, you name it. Rights are not inalienable, they are societal fictions. Reason isn’t universal, it is just an individual’s perspective (which effectively delegitimizes fundamental American ideals such as rule of law and consent of the governed). And science? For the postmodern, it, too, is just another point of view. Sound familiar?

Donald Trump is a postmodern. A postmodern President is potentially more problematic than—say—a postmodern film director. To be sure, both provide entertainment value of a barely comprehensible variety. But watching a David Lynch inspired Dennis Hopper on screen is a heady avant-garde experience; living a David Lynch inspired Presidency seems something wholly different. So, yes, we think a postmodern President is a threat, assuming, of course, that one likes the general ideas and philosophical foundations used to establish the U.S.

Assessing the Threat

Now that we have determined that there is a basis to warrant that Trump is as his critics say and we have labeled that threat as postmodern, we can now look to policy theory to help us assess the threat.

A relatively recent framework in public policy, entitled the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF), offers us means to measure, count, and perform statistical operations on narrative communications. With the NPF we can track how specific policy narratives morph and change over time. One way to assess whether or not Trump’s influence has migrated from the Presidency into other institutions is to capture the policy narratives he uses and then determine the extent to which those same narratives reverberate through other institutions. So, for example, researchers could capture Trump policy narratives presented within presidential addresses, Twitter, and media coverage and then compare them to other political actor narratives in Congressional committees, judicial rulings, as well as within media, social or otherwise. If institutions are truly robust, then we should expect that institutional narratives will not mirror Trump narratives. If institutions are not robust, then we probably have more pressing things to worry about than our findings…