It happened during drive-time radio listening—a story about Venezuela’s plight. The NPR reporter talked about troubles being caused by the Maduro régime. “The Trump Administration is evaluating,” she added.
Wait! Why is she declaring there’s a régime in Caracas and an administration in Washington?
There are reasons, of course. Régime fits Venezuela. Before Maduro there was Chávez. But the U.S. is different. We’ve always had “an Administration.” Régimes aren’t possible here. Right?
Well, yes, we’ve had a democratic system with associated norms and supporting institutions. But Trump and his appointees seem hell-bent on changing all three – the system, the norms, and the institutions. This is no administration, I concluded. It’s a régime. Period.
But the academic in me urged caution. Others have grappled with this. Where did they settle?
I’m glad I asked.
“While the word régime originates as a synonym for a negative connotation, implying an authoritarian government or dictatorship, Webster's definition states that the word régime refers simply to a form of government, while Oxford English Dictionary defines regime as "a government, especially an authoritarian one."
Conclusion: common usage accentuates the negative spin I prefer. Régime refers fundamentally to “regimen.” The Cambridge Dictionary calls it “a particular way of operating.”
But let’s take the analysis a bit further. Professor Daniel W. Drezner, a political scientist at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, helps by parsing the words.
“Régime refers to the kind of governing system that runs the state. The United States has a constitutional republic for a régime, the People’s Republic of China has a communist régime, and Iran’s régime is a Shia theocracy…. Administration refers to the particular cabinet of officials running the executive branch.”
It’s a both-and, then. The U.S. has a régime with executive administration.
To refer to the “Trump Administration,” although literally accurate, normalizes what Trump and his crowd are doing—subverting democracy and its related norms, systems, and institutions.
But Drezner had more to say … a lot more. He observes the Trump administration saying and doing things that “seem like steps toward a populist, illiberal system of rule.” What’s happening suggests “more than just a change in government from Obama to Trump, but a change in régime type as well.”
Professor Carol Anderson, the Charles Howard Candler Professor at Emory University, goes further. “Trump has no desire or intention to govern,” she writes. “He wants to rule. “
While Anderson’s conclusion is debatable, the evidence she provides of “Trump being different” is not. He’s a bully. Trump has contempt for the press, science, and the justice system. Trump fabricates the truth and gaslights constantly. He invites divisions among people. Trump enacts policies that alienate allies. And—most relevant to the discussion here—Trump has appointed cabinet secretaries who are reconfiguring the domains they oversee. In substance and direction, those efforts (what’s happening at EPA and in Education are illustrative) go well beyond what you’d typically expect “with an administration change.”
What is it? My take is that Trump and his administration seek to change America’s régime.
That’s an extraordinary conclusion. Administrations come and go—it’s the American way—but thistime is different, profoundly different, and frightening, too. To refer to the “Trump Administration,” although literally accurate, normalizes what Trump and his crowd are doing—subverting democracy and its related norms, systems, and institutions.
The only way out of this jam is to oust—oust Trump and those allied with him. Oust them at all levels, from local to national, and in all domains (elected and otherwise), from institutional to political. That means in city halls, state houses, and among executive leadership in non-profits and corporations across the country. Call it a matter of “Homeland Security.”
Why cut such a broad swath? I’ve noticed a leadership drift in this country—not just in political leadership, but also in organizational and institutional leadership across domains. There are replicate “Trump’s,” mini-me’s in philosophy and approach, across domains.
America’s democratic systems are under siege. The enemy lurks within.
The most frightening word in politics, “Régime,” has become America’s reality.