Publication

Thinking about Trump: American think tanks and their new political reality

[This working paper was published as part of the Working Paper Series.]

Abstract

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has, in many ways, altered the policy-making and public policy status quo of previous administrations, which would have likely continued if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election. One type of organization that will be impacted by these changes are think tanks, many of which are based in Washington, DC. The purpose of this article is to explore the new public policy landscape that these organizations are facing, with specific regard to the challenges and opportunities that arise from the alterations that have accompanied the election of Donald Trump. Using the astute concept of populism to understand the rise and perseverance of Donald Trump as commander-in-chief, it becomes possible to explicate the dimensions along which think tanks are being impacted, and ways that these organizations can mitigate this new ‘learning curve.’ Despite four principal challenges American think tanks will face — governmental funding, civil society skepticism, closed executive decision-making, and rapid policy priority ‘turnover’ — there are areas in which think tanks can expand their reach, relevance, and perceived or actual influence. First, American think tanks can take advantage of a significantly fractured partisan landscape, specifically by expanding their relationships with individual policy-makers in informing their legislative action and ambition. Second, think tanks can leverage a highly-attentive electorate by expanding their institutional reach beyond their traditional constituencies. This can have the added benefit of diversifying their funding constituencies, and ultimately having a positive fundraising effect.

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