Trump is not an independent


Donald Trump
President Donald


It was just last year that Donald Trump ran for president
promising cheaper health care for his supporters and greater
trade protections.

He rejected cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and pledged a new
national commitment to infrastructure. In other words, though on
paper Trump was the Republican nominee, in reality he was a kind
of independent who ignored conservative dogma to forge a message
of welfare statism and racial demagoguery.

As president, however, Trump has kept the racial demagoguery but
abandoned everything else, linking his fortunes, and his domestic
policy agenda, to a right-wing Republican establishment. His
personal volatility aside, Donald Trump has governed as an almost
doctrinaire conservative Republican.

This fact has not prevented a spate of claims that with his
unorthodox style and messaging, President Trump is largely
independent of the traditional two-party system. “Although
elected as a Republican last year, 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,” wrote Peter Baker for the New York Times. He
wasn’t alone; an Associated Press analysis declared
that “Trump the independent” had “emerged in full.”

It’s not hard to see why. Throughout August, Trump singled
out Republicans for attack, blasting them on his Twitter
feed and saving particular fury for Sens. Mitch McConnell and
Jeff Flake. And last week, Trump threw the GOP into disarray when
he backed a Democratic proposal—from leaders Chuck Schumer
and Nancy Pelosi—to fund the government, provide hurricane
disaster relief, and raise the debt ceiling for only three
months, rather than the 18 months requested by Republican

If the test for independence is merely a willingness to upend
partisan governance, then that decision fits the bill. It was an
independent moment. But it’s far too much to say that Donald
Trump is an independent president, or that he’s challenged the
“duopoly.” (If one moment is all it takes, then
who wouldn’t qualify as an “independent” president?)
For as much as Trump has been publicly antagonistic toward Mitch
McConnell, Paul Ryan, and other Republicans, his priorities are
the party’s. He may not act or speak like a typical Republican
president, but he governs like one.

For the first six months of his presidency, Trump pursued
dramatic cuts to the social safety net. Both Republican bills to
“repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act—the American Health
Care Act in the House and the Better Care Reconciliation Act in
the Senate—would have cut subsidies and slashed Medicaid to the
bone, leaving millions of Americans without health insurance.
President Trump called the House version “mean” but never wavered
in his support.

Paul Ryan Donald Trump
has adopted Republican dogma as his own.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

In his budget proposal, Trump asked Congress to take a knife to
essential programs for poor and working Americans—far from a
fulfillment of his campaign promises to protect the working
class. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would be cut
by nearly $200 billion over 10 years, while Temporary Assistance
for Needy Families—an already barebones program—is cut by $21
billion. He cuts $800 billion from Medicaid, and asks for cuts to
Social Security Disability Insurance.

His zeal for tax cuts is a central pillar of the GOP. Trump is
yet to produce a detailed plan for tax reform, but we know that
about half the benefits of Trump’s $3.5 trillion tax cut would go
to the top 1 percent of households, according to the
nonpartisan Tax Policy Center at the Brookings Institute. This is
almost indistinguishable from tax plans produced by his rivals
during the Republican presidential primaries. Jeb Bush, for
example, proposed an estimated $3.4 trillion tax cut
with most of the benefits going to high earners. Marco
Rubio called for an even pricier tax cut—$6.8 trillion over
10 years—with similar distributional effects.

Everywhere you look, Trump has adopted Republican dogma as his
own. His business-friendly policies on education and the
environment reflect GOP orthodoxy, and his judicial nominees meet
the ideological standards imposed by party activists. Neil
Gorsuch, confirmed to the Supreme Court earlier this year, is a
model conservative judge. Trump may praise himself for
the Gorsuch pick, but any Republican president would have made

If one looks at presidential politics as a story of individuals,
then Trump is a kind of independent whose alliance with
Republican leaders is tenuous and opportunistic. But this
discounts his relationship with the Republican Party as a whole.
Trump is the leader of the party, and by virtue of this is
inextricably tied to the party infrastructure.

Every choice he makes, from proposals and policies to the people
he nominates and appoints, is drawn from a well constructed by
the Republican Party and built to its specifications. Trump might
not be a product of the party, but the same can’t be said of his
White House.

And his personal independence has its limits. Trump didn’t buck
the GOP on judicial nominees or tax cuts: He did so to strike a
narrow budget deal with few repercussions for the Republican
Party’s larger priorities. As a party leader, Donald Trump is a
little more flexible—more willing to challenge and criticize his
allies. But we shouldn’t read too much into it. Trump is a
Republican, and this is a Republican administration.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.

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