On Sundays, newspapers publish think pieces in which reporters step back from the week’s news to offer a broader perspective, allowing readers to learn not just what happened but What It All Means. And often, since those reporters are similar people with similar sources observing events from similar places and spending a good deal of time in each other’s company, they arrive at similar conclusions.
So it was that this past weekend, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press all responded to Trump siding with Democrats over a relatively minor procedural matter—whether to increase the debt ceiling for a three-month period, as they wanted, or an 18-month period, as Republicans were pushing for, as part of an agreement that included aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey and a bill to keep the government functioning—in nearly the same way. Trump was showing that he’s a true independent, unmoored from party loyalty.
The AP proclaimed the arrival of “the Trump who’s emerged in full this past week: Trump the independent.” The Post (for whom I write) noted that “His dealings are frequently defined by freewheeling spontaneity, impulsive decisions and a desire to keep everyone guessing—especially those who assume they can control him,” which is true enough, although another Post political reporter tweeted, “In spirit, Pres. Trump isn’t a Democrat or a Republican. He’s a freewheeling, transactional pol who looks for wins,” which takes things a bit far. Most remarkably, the Times published an article headlined, “Bound to No Party, Trump Upends 150 Years of Two-Party Rule,” which said that “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.”
Sure, you can consider Trump an independent, so long as you discount the fact that almost everyone he has appointed to any position in the entire government is a Republican, and the executive orders rolling back Obama-era regulations to protect workers, and the dismantling of environmental protection going on at his EPA, and the sabotage of the Affordable Care Act going on at his Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Education’s promotion of for-profit education, and the failed effort to repeal the ACA and gut Medicaid, and the upcoming tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and the Wall Street executives put in charge of financial oversight, and the anti-gay efforts the administration has undertaken, and his ban on transgender Americans serving in the military, and the long list of conservative judges he has appointed, and the huge increase in military spending he wants, and the administration’s attacks on abortion rights, and his travel ban, and his decision to end DACA, and his bogus voter fraud commission, and his winks and nods to neo-confederates and the alt-right, and his pardon of authoritarian racist Joe Arpaio, and his pullout from the Paris climate accord, and his potential pullout from the Iran nuclear deal.
Other than those things, though, he’s been totally independent, not at all doing what Republicans want.
OK, so the idea that Trump has governed as an independent is utterly laughable. While it’s true that he arrived in office without the complement of ideological and partisan commitments most presidents carry with them, he has governed like the hardest of hard-right Republicans. This agreement with the Democrats on the length of the debt ceiling increase wasn’t even a “deal,” since there was no real give-and-take. Democrats stated their preference and Trump agreed with them, likely because he was looking for a way to humiliate Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, at whom he is perturbed for not delivering him a sufficient number of “wins.” It certainly wasn’t a statement of ideological preference on his part, especially since the question at hand had little if anything to do with ideology.
So you may be wondering why a bunch of smart and plugged-in journalists would be drawn to the idea that Trump isn’t governing like a Republican. There are a few reasons, the most important of which is the media’s insatiable need for novelty. It’s called the “news,” not the “olds” or the “sames” (a number of other languages use the same construction, with the word for “news” being the plural of “new”). An agreement on the debt ceiling is an opportunity to say that things have changed, which is what we in the media always want to say. All the other things that are unique and novel about Trump—we’ve certainly never had a president so petulant and ignorant before!—can lead one to conclude that everything he does is different from what another Republican would have done, so there’s an impulse to say that he’s different on policy as well.
And while it almost certainly isn’t something they’re consciously attempting to argue, I suspect that another reason reporters might want to assert that Trump is an independent is that it serves as a defense of the two-party system and the larger stability of our democracy. One way to look at Trump is that he’s the logical product of a party that has set about in recent years to promote fear of immigrants, distrust of scientific authority, the specific interests of white people, the belief that all problems have easy solutions, and a contempt not just for the media but for the idea of objective truth itself. Trump is proof positive that if you say Both Sides Do It, you’re completely wrong.
On the other hand, if Trump is an anomaly who stands outside the two parties and got elected essentially by accident, then the system is basically fine. Once he’s gone and all this madness has come to its merciful end, we can return to the way things were without asking whether there’s a profound rot within the GOP and within America itself that allowed this toxic buffoon to become his party’s nominee and then the president.
That would be a nice thought. If only it were true.