That sounds like sort of a silly question to ask about the leader of the free world who is accompanied at all times by the codes necessary to launch a nuclear attack. But does this really answer the question: how powerful is Donald Trump? Could he be less powerful than we might think?
Let’s take our question to a person you might not know. Unless you work for a startup or went to business school, you might not have heard of Everett Rogers. His 1962 study led to the bell curve shown above. Maybe he can provide some guidance?
Rogers tried to explain how, why and at what rate new ideas spread. It is called diffusion, which, for him, is the process by which an innovation is communicated over time among the participants in a social system – how a new idea takes hold in a group.
The new idea for today (maybe not so new in some circles) is that it just might be okay to ignore Donald Trump, to scorn him, even to resist him outright because there might be nothing he can do about it. Depending on how quickly this idea is adopted by members of a few small groups, President Trump might really have very little power at all.
In this case, there are two separate social systems: the political left and the political right. They are separate markets in which this idea could take hold.
Rogers suggests that people adopt new ideas at different rates based on a variety of factors appropriate to the circumstances. Let’s imagine that the key question in the case of Donald Trump is “what is the risk to me of opposing (or even deposing) him?”
For the political left, there is no risk whatever to opposing the President. Even the slowest adapting laggards have long since moved past that decision. For them, the problem is that there is little they can do to get him out of the White House though they have been quite successful in derailing his objectives.
The political right is of greater interest because there is more they can do about it. Think distinguished Republican Senators telling President Nixon he had to resign in 1974.
Though Republicans have more influence over the President than Democrats, they also have the most risk of being accused of disloyalty to their team and potentially punished for it. Each influential Republican, who might in one way or another contribute to ousting the President, is somewhere on the Rogers bell curve. Where depends upon whatever factors are important to him or her, but self-interest is surely high on the list. A Quixotic failed solo effort is far from the best career enhancement strategy hence it makes sense for every influential Republican to wonder where he or she thinks the others are on the Rogers bell curve.
A majority of the Cabinet (13 of 24) could put Vice President Pence in the Oval Office. Being the first to suggest the idea has more career risk than being the last. Thereafter two-thirds of each branch of Congress would decide.
The Senate has 48 Democrats who are probably pretty safe bets to impeach, but does it have 19 Republicans to achieve the two-thirds requirement? Of the 52 Republicans, how many are innovators, early adopters and early majority when it comes to ousting a duly elected president of their own party? Based on the Rogers percentages, all of the innovators and early adopters among the 52 Republican Senators gets to eight, leaving the safety seeking vote counter to wonder if 11 more of the next 17 fastest moving Republican Senators will join them.
The House is similar. There are 192 Democrats. The outcome depends on 98 of 240 Republicans joining them. Like the Senate a high percentage of the “early majority” Congressmen would have to be on board.
What would it take to make that number of Cabinet members; Senators and Congressmen feel safe in making a decision to oust the President to say nothing of the unelected Republican political insiders?
More CEO resignations from presidential advisory councils? More generals and admirals contradicting the President? Worse poll numbers? More late night TV monologues? More world leaders expressing outrage? More adverse media coverage (probably not, in fact that might move opinion in the other direction)? Staff resignations? A tweet? A press conference tantrum?
It might not take much.
In one case, a few unscripted words were enough. “Have you no sense of decency? At long last have you left no sense of decency?” They were spoken by Joseph Nye Welch, a partner at the Boston law firm Hale and Dorr, and they ended the career of Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954.
It is perhaps ironic that a former partner in the successor to Nye’s firm – WilmerHale – is a significant figure in today’s drama.
His name is Robert S. Mueller III.