Duke professors express uncertainty about consequences of White House dysfunction

Several Duke professors are unsure about how the recent turnover in the Trump administration will affect his presidency. 

The administration has seen the departure of a handful of important White House staff and the dissolution of four prominent advisory councils within the last few weeks alone. Among those who have exited are chief strategist Stephen Bannon, national security advisor Sebastian Gorka, chief of staff Reince Priebus and press secretary Sean Spicer. 

So what does this mean for Trump’s policy goals, the White House’s inner-office prospects and Duke graduate and policy advisor Stephen Miller? 

“All administrations undergo change in personnel over time—sometimes pretty substantial change—but this is a pretty remarkable set of top figures to depart so early in an administration,” said David Rohde, Ernestine Friedl professor of political science. “And of course, that in itself is a function of the fact that this is a very unusual administration.”

Rohde explained that it is impossible to know the policy implications of such turnover until is clear how the replacements shape Trump's behavior. The president has drawn criticism from many in Congress for his use of Twitter, and a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that 58 percent of Americans do not support his conduct. 

"It’s really hard to tell [what policy changes will result], because the most important driving force in an administration is the president himself,” Rohde said. “What effect these have is going to depend largely on whether the president alters his patterns of behavior.... So, the changes could end up being only cosmetic and changes in the names of players, or it could lead to some significant changes in outputs of the administration.”

Rohde noted that the departure likely to have the biggest effect on Trump is that of Bannon. Bannon was critical to Trump's election win and had a “special relationship” with the president, Rohde said. 

He added that if “extremely conservative, populist figures” replace Bannon and Gorka,  then the impact of the changes will be minimal. However, if their departures leads to his reliance on more moderate advisors, then there may be a large effect. 

“But again, that’s the key to it—how all of this affects the president,” Rohde said.

He also explained that John Kelly—Priebus’s replacement as White House Chief of Staff—is not a political person, and that his replacement of Priebus keeps the “nature” of the national security group intact. 

Still, Kelly's impact on Trump's behavior remains unclear. At times, Trump has appeared more restrained since the staff change. However, the president sparked more controversy and division under Kelly's watch by equating white supremacists with activists protesting racism at the deadly riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump was also combative and defensive at a campaign-style rally in Phoenix earlier this month.  

“There does seem to be some evidence on some occasions since the personnel change that the president has taken a less flamboyant, less confrontational approach in certain public appearances,” Rohde explained. “But then in other public appearances—like the one in Arizona—it’s as extreme as it’s ever been. It’s hard to say.”

David Siegel, associate professor of political science and Sanford School of Public Policy, said that there are two ways of viewing the recent personnel shakeups in the Trump administration.

The more cynical view is that the changes are “palace intrigue” designed to distract people, while the administration accomplishes its policy goals—such as the dismantling of Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Siegel analogized it to the palace intrigue commonly seen in authoritarian regimes.

“The non-cynical version of this is that it could be realignment in the sense of there has not been a very strong policy output from the Trump administration and there might be perception that they need some actual concrete outcomes to happen, and most of their goals—the Obamacare repeal and so on—have not succeeded,” Siegel said. “So you might imagine that clearing the deck of people who have not helped achieve policy goals might be a natural way to kind of do that.”   

Members of Trump’s inner circle are not the White House’s only recent departures. His manufacturing council and economic advisory council were dissolved on August 16 after a wave of members departed due to the president’s comments on the events in Charlottesville. Councils on infrastructure and arts were disbanded over the next two days.

William Boulding, dean of the Fuqua School of Business, wrote in an email that there are risks associated with a CEO taking a political stand, like leaving an advisory council convened by the president. He said that business leaders tend to act when a political action threatens to harm their business model, hurt their employees, undermines their company’s values or conflicts with their personal ethics.

“Some CEOs were genuinely hopeful that they could advocate for reforms they felt would help the business community at large and that by having a voice at the table they could help affect change,” Boulding wrote. “However, I think many CEOs have been struggling to reconcile affecting change with condoning the President’s behavior in some contexts.”

Despite the mass exit of business leaders from Trump’s administration coinciding with the departures of his high-level staff, Siegel said he does not see the two as being connected.   

Considering all the recent personnel turmoil, how does Duke grad Stephen Miller’s job security fair?

“I have no idea,” Rohde said. “No idea. You can imagine that those forces that—again, most probably Kelly—who helped to engineer some of these departures want to continue. On the other hand, Miller is someone—given these other changes—the president may want to hang onto."


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