Last Wednesday, President Trump made a surprising, curious deal with Democrats. Rather than bow to the wishes of his fellow Republicans by attempting to raise the debt ceiling for six or more months, Trump undercut (for roughly the 15-thousandth time) his baffling reputation as a master negotiator and acceded to Democrats’ demands for a shorter extension straightaway, setting up a fiscal showdown in December that few in his party are looking forward to.
The arrangement was limited in scope and represents a minor victory, at best, for Democrats. But Trump’s supposed apostasy provided a convenient excuse for Republicans to loudly denounce their unhinged president, separating themselves from a man they think gives conservatism a bad name. Their protestations also colored the way the deal was covered in the mainstream press — as some sort of tectonic shift instead of the 1.2 tremor on the political Richter scale it really was.
This gap between the magnitude of the events and the perception of them was evident in media coverage over the weekend. On Saturday, the New York Times published an article, pegged to the deal, with the headline: “Bound to No Party, Trump Upends 150 Years of Two-Party Rule.”
“Although elected as a Republican last year,” Peter Baker writes, “Mr. Trump has shown in the nearly eight months in office that he is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the current two-party system around the time of the Civil War.” Baker notes that Trump originally thought of running for president on the Reform Party ticket in 2000, cites Trump’s consistent attacks against fellow Republicans like Mitch McConnell as proof of his refusal to be boxed in by party, and even speculates that Trump will ditch the GOP when he runs for reelection.
The label “independent” implies that a political figure isn’t bound to the dogma of one of the two major parties — and there is very little evidence that this is true for Trump. He did once hold far more liberal views than he does now, and he has been relentless in attacking his own party. But none of that changes the fact that the president has seemed eager to govern as an extreme right-wing ideologue on almost every issue. The notion, popular during the campaign, that Trump would fuse nativist impulses with big-government largesse has fizzled; instead, he has thrown his weight behind hugely regressive tax cuts and massive cuts to Medicaid and abandoned his plan to fix the nation’s infrastructure. (He has, of course, stuck with the hard line on immigration, the one area where he has bucked traditional Republican orthodoxy.)
Another problem with the thesis is that attacking “Establishment” Republicans like McConnell or Paul Ryan hardly counts as aberrant behavior for a bomb-throwing GOPer these days — that kind of behavior has been firmly part of the culture of the party since at least the tea-party wave of 2010. If Donald Trump isn’t really a Republican, what about Ted Cruz or the members of the House Freedom Caucus?
The article quotes Ben Domenech, editor of the Federalist, who says Republicans should not think of Trump as their party leader. But the idea that Trump is some sort of anomalous fake Republican is wishful thinking by Domenech. The GOP base still largely embraces the president, and sides with him, not tut-tutting party functionaries, on his most divisive ideas. The appearance of political independence on Trump’s part is mostly a function of a fractured and dysfunctional party.
Axios’s Mike Allen also seemed ready to accept the idea that Trump’s deal with Democrats marked an epochal shift in the direction of independence. In an item headlined “Why Trump Hopes the New Trump Sticks,” Allen wrote:
A Trump adviser says that after a tumultuous seven months in office, it had finally dawned on the president: “People really f@&@ing hate me.” For someone who has spent his life lapping up adulation, however fake, it was a harsh realization. This is a man with an especially acute need for affirmation.
The question of why Trump would arrive at this realization now, as opposed to any point over the last several years (or decades) goes unanswered.
It’s tempting, as always, to believe that Trump has finally had his come-to-Jesus moment and realized the error of his divisive ways. But the truism that Trump is governed by the need to be loved is belied by the fact that almost everything he says and does is profoundly unpopular. But Trump didn’t win in 2016 by pandering to the average American; he won by tailoring a message for tens of millions of aggrieved white people. And there’s been no real sign since his presidency began, one day’s worth of bipartisanship notwithstanding, that he’s uncomfortable with maintaining that approach going forward.
(Axios also reported over the weekend that Trump will meet with black Republican senator Tim Scott in what could be a “racial reset” after the president’s botched responses to the violence in Charlottesville. It notes that “the moment could be fleeting or consequential, depending on whether Trump realizes that, at 71, he has a lot of catching up to do.” A wild guess: It will be fleeting.)
Almost eight months into his decidedly abnormal presidency, there remains a persistent and surprisingly widespread impulse among political journalists to transmogrify Trump into a traditional president, one who makes decisions based on long-term strategy, one not governed by pure id — a president who has something in common with men who came before him. (Perhaps there’s something comforting in that?)
This impulse animated the never-fulfilled expectation that Trump would “pivot” to a more traditional presidential pose during the 2016 election. It showed up again when Trump kind of, sort of eschewed his nuttier side during Hurricane Harvey. And it has appeared once more, now that Trump has made a very slight gesture toward bipartisanship.
Yet just three weeks ago, Trump was touting the merits of white supremacists. His dark, Manichaean view of the world is not going to change; nor will his impulsiveness, impetuousness, or any of the other characteristics that make him so ill-suited to be president. Waiting for him to transform into some semblance of a normal human being, much less a president governed by anything beyond impulse, will be a long wait indeed.
Meanwhile, Trump connected Hurricane Irma to the apparently urgent need for “tax reform” — one of the 15 things he does every day that would have counted as scandalous for any other president, but which the country has become so inured to that it barely makes a ripple.