The Atlantic

The Precedent for Trump's Administration Isn't Nixon—It's Clinton

A network analysis of the structure of the president's inner circle suggests some surprising parallels.
Source: Reuters / Handout

History is at least as much about the structures of power as it is about the personalities of “great men”—or terrible ones. Of course, a president’s idiosyncrasies matter, and the outsized and outrageous personality of the current president of the United States has riveted the public and press. But most condemnations of President Donald Trump are also, if only implicitly, accusations that his administration has broken with precedent and violated the norms of presidential government. We are not so sure. Trump’s manner of exercising power certainly has a precedent. In terms of the structure of politics—a term associated with the Cambridge historian Lewis Namier—Trump’s presidency is not so new, even if his personality is sui generis.

The most useful data to support this claim may come, paradoxically, from seemingly unreliable sources. Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury aroused a media frenzy with its hyperbolic accounts of Trump’s tantrums and the machinations of those around him. But Wolff is not the first journalist to write a breathless account of a new presidency. Bob Woodward did it for Bill Clinton, as well as for George W. Bush and Barack Obama, while Rowland Evans and Robert Novak did it for Richard Nixon. These accounts are each imperfect in different ways. They nevertheless offer valuable data about the pattern and frequency of interactions between officials. Even if some dialogue may be invented, the simple occurrence of meetings or conversations is less likely to be fabricated.

Network diagrams can represent almost any structure of relations as a set of nodes and ties (also called vertices and edges). We have used a straightforward approach to create network models for three modern American presidencies. Social ties are the sum of two individuals’ interpersonal interactions; the more they interact, the stronger their relationship.

To study those interactions, we use the labor spent by publishers in compiling an index of the pages in which an actor plays a. If two actors appear on the same page, we infer that there existed a between them, either in the mind of the author or in reality or both.

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