© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Dirksen Congressional Center commissions a new look at Trump's 'disruptive' relationship with U.S. Senate

FILE - Then President Donald Trump, left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., greet each other during a campaign rally in Lexington, Ky., Nov. 4, 2019. McConnell has endorsed Donald Trump for president. McConnell announced his decision after Super Tuesday wins pushed Trump, who is the GOP front-runner, closer to the party nomination. It’s a remarkable turnaround for McConnell, who has blamed Trump for “disgraceful” acts in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)
Timothy D. Easley
AP file
Then-President Donald Trump, left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., greet each other during a campaign rally in Lexington, Ky., in 2019.

To say that Donald Trump was a president unlike any other isn't breaking news. Most either love him or hate him, with very few finding themselves somewhere in between.

The Dirksen Congressional Center's newly commissioned book Disruption? The Senate During the Trump Era attempts to take an academic look at how Trump changed the U.S. Senate during his four years in office.

By design, the U.S. Senate is an institutional bulwark resistant to change. That's anathema to a disruptive leader like Trump, who as president needs Congress to accomplish much of his agenda.

"And so these two extremes, putting them together and testing out this theory of the relationship between the presidency and the U.S. Senate under those circumstances, seemed like a really important question to ask," said Tiffany White, executive director of the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin.

Disruption? The Senate During the Trump Era is a new book commissioned by the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin
Oxford University Press
Disruption? The Senate During the Trump Era is a new book commissioned by the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin

A coterie of 18 professionals in various fields contributed their takes on that relationship. That includes Dr. Sean Theriault, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and editor of Disruption!.

When Trump was elected in 2020, the Senate was led by fellow Republican Mitch McConnell. Yet despite sharing many priorities, Theriault said their relationship saw its share of personality clashes.

"When the goals were aligned, they got along hand in glove, and we can think of everything from Supreme Court nominations to reducing taxes. But then, when it comes to other things, such as the tradition-laden Senate or the tradition-laden presidency, you saw them act very differently," he said. "And so at times, very much a lot of tension between the two. And then at other times, they got along swimmingly."

Judicial confirmations in particular are an area where Trump and the GOP-led Senate saw a high degree of cooperation in shifting the courts to the right. The appointments of three Supreme Court justices solidified the conservative majority, not to mention a slew of appellate and district court judge appointments.

Tiffany White says Senate Historian Emeritus Don Ritchie offers his unique perspective on judicial nominations in one chapter.

"Some of the boundaries that we saw pushed really significantly during the Trump administration had started to be pushed during the Obama administration, during the Bush administration, and perhaps even in the Clinton administration," she said. "So it came to a crescendo during the Trump administration, but I really appreciate Don's perspective that he offers to readers about the circumstances that I think really created the groundwork for what we saw in between 2016 and 2020."

Sean Theriault notes increased polarization now leads government to essentially grind to a halt when the White House and the Congress are controlled by opposite parties. He said that's elevated the importance of the courts, which are now handing down decisions he says were unthinkable even a decade ago, enabled in part by the breakdown of the lawmaking process.

"Part of that is Trump as disruptor. Part of that is Trump as accelerant. But clearly, all of the blame does not belong at his seat," Theriault said. "We see the court playing a much more prominent role, which means that when there are vacancies, the politics surrounding the filling of those vacancies takes on an even bigger role in determining national policymaking."

Theriault acknowledges that taking a stab at an objective analysis of recent U.S. history is challenging. That's why he said the book pulls in not only historians, but also journalists, political scientists, former Senate staffers and others.

"Each of the different subfields brought a different perspective, so that we could have a really nuanced picture of what Disruption? was all about. And so some authors are very much on the disruption, exclamation point. Other authors are like, 'Well, maybe it's disruption, question mark, question mark, question mark,' in they didn't break down according to subfields. But rather, they broke down on the particular questions that they were examining."

White said the Dirksen Center's mission is educational, and the book doesn't really try to lead the reader to one particular conclusion on how President Trump impacted the Senate. She says it's complicated.

"I think that regardless of a reader's bias, coming into the book, whether they like Donald Trump, or whether they don't like Donald Trump, I think that their preconceived notions will in some ways be challenged, but also, in some ways be enhanced or supported," White said. "I think the common denominator, though, is that everyone is going to be able to utilize this example of recent U.S. history as a way to better understand the way that our government operates. And that's really the point."

Disruption? The Senate During the Trump Era will be released on May 7. It's published by Oxford University Press.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.