After President Trump’s shocking move last week in greenlighting a debt ceiling increase, a budget extension, and unfunded Hurricane Harvey relief with the help of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the media responded with congratulatory plaudits. “Bound to No Party, Trump Upends 150 Years of Two-Party Rule,” trumpeted The New York Times. “Yes, Trump is an ‘independent,’” celebrated Vox.com’s Hans Noel.
This has set off a response among leftists desperate to prove that Trump is not, in fact, an independent – that might separate his perceived toxicity from conservatives more generally. Thus, Salon.com ran a piece titled, “Now Trump is an ‘independent’ president? Give us a break.” Zach Beauchamp argued the same thing at Vox.com to counter his own site’s editorial from Noel.
So, is Trump an independent?
Of course he is. He always has been. He was never conservative. He said so openly. He was a third party candidate who ran within one of the two major parties. That is neither unprecedented nor even unique. President Nixon was widely perceived as a maverick independent by his second term, when he had instituted price and wage controls, expanded the government bureaucracy, and opened China. President Clinton was seen as an “independent” willing to cut deals with Republicans. Eisenhower was seen the same way – as he should have been, considering that the Democrats reportedly wanted to offer him the lead on their ticket in 1947. John McCain ran as a “maverick” willing to deal across party lines, and flirted with nominating Democrat Joe Lieberman as his running mate.
It’s not odd to see a president touted as “independent” from his party. It is odd to see his own party celebrate it.
Parties are meant to tack down politicians to a program. Freewheeling politicians can abandon the priorities they promised (as Ann Coulter has repeatedly lamented regarding immigration). Now, it would be one thing if that freewheeling politician were bringing some sort of ideological accountability to the party he heads. But that’s not what Trump is doing here: he just cut a deal that would have led to hue and cry had the president’s name been Jeb! Bush instead of Donald Trump.
All of which goes to show that attitude matters more than policy for many American voters. To Trump, the attraction of Democratic praise is catnip: he reportedly called Schumer and Pelosi to crow over the media coverage of his total surrender to their priorities. And yet Trump loyalists continue to maintain that the move was pure Trump, a salvo in his ongoing civil war with the “establishment.” This is utterly incoherent. If you’re going to celebrate the “independent” president because the Republicans need a comeuppance, there’s an easy way to do it: vote Democrat. But if you care about policy one iota, Trump only ought to be celebrated for bucking Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConell (R-KY) when they are insufficiently conservative, not just as general rule.
But that’s not what’s happening. Many on the right are celebrating Trump slapping Ryan and McConnell. Not on principle. Just because FIGHTING! and KILL THE ESTABLISHMENT RAARGH! and DRAIN THE SWAMP! That seems to be the attitude of Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon, who simultaneously declared war on Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in his interview on 60 Minutes, and yet lamented the possibility of a civil war inside the party over the rollback of President Obama’s executive amnesty. You can’t have it both ways. Either you want the war on conservative grounds or you want it on anti-conservative grounds.
Unless you think Trump’s independence is actually ideological. That’s what Bannon seems to think – that Trump is fighting for a new philosophy of big government spending, isolationist foreign policy, border hawkishness. If so, he’s going to have a hard time convincing Trump, who seems not to care, or his most ardent followers, who seem more inclined to fight a #WAR to no purpose than to fight one on behalf of a newfangled Bannon philosophical vintage shoehorned into the old Trump bottle. Bannon won’t be the one to hold Trump accountable. Trump’s the dog now, and Bannonism is the tail.
Which means that we’re looking at the possibility of a full-on collapse the Republican Party. It’s not difficult to foresee a scenario where Trump blows himself up so badly that the Republican Party dumps him – and in order to slap at the Republican Party, he runs third party and takes half the party with him. Teddy Roosevelt did that. Why shouldn’t Trump?
Those followers who cheer Trump now against Ryan and McConnell, no matter what the grounds – good or bad – just want the war. And some of them don’t seem to care which issue ignites it. That’s the difference between Trump’s independence and that of past presidents. There is no anchor holding Trump down. Trump is a balloon threatening to fly away with whomever is emotionally tethered to him.