• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Subscribe
  • RSS

Trump is the Leader of the GOP, not an “Independent”

Trump And GOP ElephantVia the NYT comes a stunningly terrible bit of political analysis:  Bound to No Party, Trump Upends 150 Years of Two-Party Rule.

President Trump demonstrated this past week that he still imagines himself a solitary cowboy as he abandoned Republican congressional leaders to forge a short-term fiscal deal with Democrats. 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.

In recent weeks, he has quarreled more with fellow Republicans than with the opposition, blasting congressional leaders on Twitter, ousting former party officials in his White House, embracing primary challenges to incumbent lawmakers who defied him and blaming Republican figures for not advancing his policy agenda. On Friday, he addressed discontent about his approach with a Twitter post that started, “Republicans, sorry,” as if he were not one of them, and said party leaders had a “death wish.”

There is some serious “no true Scotsman” thinking going on here.

There is a weird species of American political thought that wants to define partisan activity as being about some abstract set of behaviors, rather than by the label used by a politician (it is how we get the whole RINO business).  I have written on this before:

Look:  Donald J. Trump, regardless of past political affiliations or political utterances, ran as a Republican in the Republican primary and was nominated by the Republican National Convention to be the Republican nominee for President and was sworn in as POTUS as a Republican.  He is the nominal head of the Republican Party.  He is, by definition, a Republican. Indeed, regardless of what some Republicans might want to be the case, he is the most important Republican in Washington.

When the voters of a party (who have the ultimate say in our systems over who is nominated) select a Donald Trump to be the leader of the party, the party is going to undergo change. And, it should be noted, the institutional party can do nothing to change this fact.  They cannot remove him office early, save under extraordinary circumstances and they have no mechanism to kick him out of the party.  And, if they did try, it would create a civil war inside the party.

Here is some evidence of his leadership role in the Republican Party:  when he cut a deal over the debt ceiling with Chuck and Nancy* the leadership of the Republican Party in the House and Senate scheduled a vote in both chambers and proceeded to allow the legislation to pass (even with the defection of a substantial number of rank-and-file Republicans in the House).

To be clear:  legislative leadership directly responded to the leader of the party.  They did not draw a line in the sand in opposition.  They did not treat him like anything other than the Republican leader.

Keep in mind the following:

1.  Parties have factions.  Just because one faction (e.g., the Freedom Caucus) has one preference, doesn’t mean another faction (e.g., Trump’s) doesn’t have another.  Indeed, the Republicans have been dealing with internal fracturing for some time now, and the debt ceiling issue has been a major schism point.

2.  This is one data point.  We should not be making sweeping generalizations about the Trump presidency from one event.  Remember when his speech to Congress made him “presidential”–remember how long that lasted?

Side note:  critics of the media constantly carry on about bias, but the reality is that the bias is focused on things like a dramatic story (see, e.g., Irma) rather than a political bias.  Trump acting “presidential” or wrecking the two-party system is the kind of “man bites dog” story that the press loves.

3.  Negotiating with the opposition and cutting one deal deal is not an example of blowing up the party system. To use an example that is relevant to current politics:  NAFTA was passed in the Congress because Democratic President Bill Clinton worked with Republicans.  Reagan, that Great Saint of Republicanism, was known to negotiate with Tip O’Neil.

4.  The current politics of the day increased the chances of a deal.  As I have noted already:  Hurricane Harvey (and now Irma) have changed the political dynamics of what was going to be a confrontational September.   Using either the debt ceiling or the end of the fiscal year as a bargaining chip went away when Harvey dumped feet of water on Houston.  I think any vote has to be understood in this context.

What we are seeing here is the way presidential systems influence the parties of presidents.  The underlying assumption of most people seems to be the expectations that the party should shape the president.  Hence, when Trump does not conform to some vision of the party, it is taken as evidence that Trump isn’t a “real” Republican.  However, what tends to happen is that parties conform to their leaders and Trump is the leader of the GOP.  Again, this is what we saw this week.

For that matter, parties as coherent drivers of policy are weakened in presidential systems (versus parliamentary ones).

To quote Samuels and Shugart:  ”In contrast to prime ministers, executives in pure presidential systems face far weaker intraparty constraints on their own actions” (226).  This is exactly what we saw this week.  Ryan and McConnell could not exert the kind of intraparty influence over Trump that would have been the case if we had a parliamentary system wherein the executive would have been selected by the legislative majority instead in a separate electoral process.

For it to be said that Trump is acting like an independent, several things have to happen. The most obvious would be for Trump to simply declare himself not a Republican.  This seems unlikely.  From there, he would need to utterly alter the way he interacts with the majority and minority leaderships.  If he actually starts treating with them in an undifferentiated fashion on a regular basis, we can talk.  Having a bipartisan meeting is not an example of this.

—-

*A new sitcom coming this Fall to CBS! (It is what I think of every time I hear the phrase).

Related Posts:

About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    By all accounts I’ve read, Trump was thrilled with the NYT article. His whole adult life has been a quest–terribly handled, to be sure–to get a favorable mention in the Times. He’d call himself a Druid if he thought it would get him a good notice from the news organizations he pretends to deride but secretly worships.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    All true Steven, but the Times piece has such a nice smashing of the establishment riff to it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. Kylopod says:

    It’s amazing how overhyped the debt-ceiling deal has become. First of all, it is not in any way whatsoever the first time a modern president has made deals with the opposition party. The article itself mentions several examples before remarking, “none seemed as distant from his own party as Mr. Trump,” although the article specifies no real policies in which Trump as president has acted as an “independent.”

    In point of fact, Trump has so far governed far more as a conventional Republican than he campaigned. Almost all the ways in which he forged unorthodox positions on the campaign trail (trade, infrastructure, the social safety net, foreign intervention, LGBT rights), he has so far done little to pursue or backtracked on or completely flip-flopped on. The main things he has pursued (if not achieved) since entering office have consisted of (a) a Muslim travel ban that many in the party establishment oppose, but which is certainly a product of the country’s right wing (b) a thoroughly conservative Supreme Court justice pick (c) pulling out of the Paris climate accords (d) the failed Obamacare repeal bill, which ended up consisting of an attempt to cut taxes and slash Medicaid (e) the upcoming “tax reform” bill (f) a proposal to kick transgender people out of the military (g) preemptive strikes against Syria (h) deregulatory executive orders.

    For some bizarre reason, Mr. Baker thinks all this constitutes the record of an “independent.” To quote the over-quoted quote, I do not think that word means what he thinks it means.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  4. Guarneri says:

    Slow blog day I guess.

    “Via the NYT comes a stunningly terrible bit of political analysis..”

    Could have stopped there. And the response is: well blow me over.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 15

  5. DrDaveT says:

    I think you’re still missing a key piece here, Steven. Yes, Trump ran on the Republican ticket. Yes, Republican politicians feel some obligation to back Trump’s play — whether out of fear or loyalty or sympathy is hardly relevant.

    The problem is that the converse is not true. Trump feels no loyalty to the Republican party, no need to back its policies, and no urge to accomplish its agenda. If it isn’t good for Trump, in whatever twisted scoring system he’s using, he will abandon it at the drop of a hat. He’s not playing R vs. D — he’s playing Trump vs. everyone else. He may be in charge of the Republican Party, but he does not represent them or their interests.

    You seem to be slow to incorporate this into your analysis. Is it because you don’t think it’s true, or because you think it doesn’t matter?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  6. @DrDaveT: I think you are missing my basic point: it doesn’t matter what Trump’s goals are, the GOP is stuck with him as their leader.

    Note what just passed the Congress: who drove that? The GOP leadership in the Congress or in the the GOP leader in the WH?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  7. Andre Kenji says:

    @DrDaveT:

    He may be in charge of the Republican Party, but he does not represent them or their interests.

    Note that the interests of the base of the Republican Party is completely different from the interests of their donors.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  8. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Guarneri: Well I’ll certainly agree that the NYT is not the fountain of objective wisdom and insight that Zero Hedge is.

    On the other hand, the thousand or so column inches of Trump that the Times needs to publish every day doesn’t write itself, nor is it submitted by mysterious elves or sprites direct to the press during the night. So, the writers have to make do with whatever the day provides them in dross. Sometimes the results are bound to be hyperbolic.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  9. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I think you are missing my basic point: it doesn’t matter what Trump’s goals are, the GOP is stuck with him as their leader.

    Are they? What happens to GOP congressmen who choose to pursue the GOP agenda, rather than the Trump agenda? We don’t know yet. The situation is sufficiently unprecedented that it may be a while before we do.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  10. MBunge says:

    I think it’s a little bit much to call Trump the leader of the GOP when you have significant elements within the party and it surrounding political movement openly trashing him like no GOP President before. When George W. Bush had lower approval ratings and both the Iraq debacle and a massive economic crisis on his resume, he still didn’t get anything close to the Trump treatment.

    Mike

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 17

  11. Scott O says:

    @MBunge: It’s so unfair. Trump is always so nice to everyone. Why are people so mean to him?

    /snark

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 1

  12. gVOR08@fuse.net says:

    Irma passed thru a couple hours ago and I’m working with a poor LTE connection so I’m not going to pull up Baker’s column. But IIRC he concludedTrump might run as an independent in’20. God doesn’t love me, or any Dem, that much. This is just another installment in MSM desperation to find a pivot to presidential.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  13. RedneckCrazy says:

    Trump is by far the best I’ve seen yet. Tho many don’t like him he will do good things for America. Proud we got one with a backbone

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 20

  14. Kylopod says:

    @RedneckCrazy:

    Tho many don’t like him he will do good things for America.

    The only thing remotely interesting about that comment is that even one of Trump’s adoring sycophants still feels compelled to use the future tense.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  15. KM says:

    @MBunge:
    So if enough people talk sh^t about the boss, he’s not the boss anymore? Wow. Soooo many middle-managers and CEOs just got demoted. The fact that you do not like or agree with your organizational superior doesn’t in any way change their function or role. Unless they actively do something to drive them out (known as a mutiny, coup d’etat, etc), the PTB remain regardless of how the factions grumble.

    Look, we all get they want to ride Trump’s coattails for the voters’ love and distance themselves when he does something stupid. It must be exhausting for them. Doesn’t make a lick of difference – President of the United States is seen by the public at large and the political establishment in particular as the figurehead and de facto spokeperson of their political party. The President isn’t your figurehead anymore because some haters in his party hate him? Better tell the Trumpkins since they’re more like to pitch the RINOs and keep Trump then the other way around.

    Conservatives like to pitch the “maverick” thing. They’re trying to appeal to the stereotype of the Rugged Individualist, whom every conservative secretly thinks they are. How funny then that such a beast is expected to adhere to specific concepts lest they be declared RINO, thus defeating the notion of Rugged Individualist in the first place. Oh voters want a maverick all right, one that does exactly what they want him to. “Independents” are only welcome when they are really conservatives but don’t want the label or baggage.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @RedneckCrazy:

    Proud we got one with a backbone

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…. gasp…. wheeze…. Stop it, yer killing me!

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  17. rachel says:

    @RedneckCrazy: But whose backbone is it? Tang the Conqueror himself has about as much backbone as one of the chondrichthyes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  18. @DrDaveT:

    Are they? What happens to GOP congressmen who choose to pursue the GOP agenda, rather than the Trump agenda? We don’t know yet. The situation is sufficiently unprecedented that it may be a while before we do.

    It isn’t about individual GOP congressmen, it is about congressional leadership. It isn’t actually possible for individual members of Congress to pursue their own agenda if leadership isn’t onboard.

    Beyond that, that leadership, and the party beyond it, are unlikely to go to open war with their own president, seeing as how GOP voters elected him to office.

    They are stuck with him.

    I am not saying it is impossible to pass legislation without his participation (indeed, probably anything that will get passed will have minor input from him).

    But, he is not an independent and will not be treated as such.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  19. @gVOR08@fuse.net: Hope all is well post-Irma, We are getting some of the rain now, with the main part to come.

    Yes, the column had this:

    By the week’s end, pundits speculated about whether Mr. Trump might seek re-election in 2020 as an independent.

    Not only is the weasely: “pundits speculated” (yeah, so what?) but it is an insane notion and there is zero reason Trump would do it. Certainly this week, in which the leaders of the GOP did exaclty what he wanted, is no indication he is leaving the party or unwanted.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  20. Let me focus on something simple: the leaders of the GOP is both chambers of Congress did exactly what the President asked them to do this week, even after they had publicly stated that they wanted something different.

    Does that scenario make the president sound like a leader of the GOP or does it make him sound like a rogue independent about to abandon the party?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: It makes McConnell and Ryan the lackeys they are.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  22. al-Ameda says:

    @RedneckCrazy:

    Trump is by far the best I’ve seen yet. Tho many don’t like him he will do good things for America. Proud we got one with a backbone

    Definitely, yes: quantity not quality is always the best way to go.

    I always thought that Sarah Palin was the most impulsive, least thoughtful, and least deliberative national politician (with a backbone) I’ve ever seen, then Trump came along.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  23. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @RedneckCrazy: Your screen name fails to do you justice.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  24. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Does that scenario make the president sound like a leader of the GOP or does it make him sound like a rogue independent about to abandon the party?

    As OzarkHillbilly pointed out, there’s a third option — namely, that Trump is not concerned with who is following him. He can’t ‘abandon’ a party that he never really joined. If he continues to do exactly what he has done so far — namely, whatever he feels like doing — that will not constitute “abandoning the GOP”, even if it clashes repeatedly with their agenda.

    I think we’re disagreeing about what ‘leader’ means, rather than about Trump or the GOP. You said:

    Beyond that, [GOP Congressional] leadership, and the party beyond it, are unlikely to go to open war with their own president, seeing as how GOP voters elected him to office.

    They are stuck with him.

    …and I agree completely. They — including the actual leaders of the GOP — are stuck with him.

    …Which is not at all the same relationship, at least as I understand the words, as leader/follower. If everyone in the office thinks the boss is an idiot, and works diligently to get around his rules and undermine his authority, he’s still the boss — but not the leader.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  25. @DrDaveT:

    If everyone in the office thinks the boss is an idiot, and works diligently to get around his rules and undermine his authority, he’s still the boss — but not the leader.

    Without getting into boss/leader distinctions here, let me note: by your own definition Trump was the leader of the GOP this week on vote under discussion.

    Remember, too the post is about whether Trump’s behavior this week makes him an “independent” or not.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  26. @DrDaveT: I will say that “boss” is the wrong word here, because bosses can get what they want by fiat and can fire people. Neither is true of a party leader in the US, whether we are talking Trump or not.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  27. gVOR08 says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    Appreciate your concern. Got power back a couple hours ago. No damage except a few branches down, and somehow conflating my user name and email on my phone. We’re a lot luckier than a lot of people in Naples, not very far south. Irma seemed to fade quickly once inland.

    Yes, McConnell and Ryan did, pretending to kick and scream, follow Trump out of the corner they had painted themselves into as surely as he had.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. @gVOR08: Glad to hear all is well. The storm was definitely less than expected once it reached us.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. Matt says:

    @gVOR08: Man I lost power for a week when Harvey hit here…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0