There’s a new narrative in the air intoxicating the Washington media elite: President Donald Trump is not a Democrat or a Republican. He is an independent, scuttling all party loyalty in the White House.
Navigating the corridors of pundit groupthink, you can practically touch and taste it. It is convenient and reassuring, proudly neglecting recent history. And it’s great for retweets.
“In spirit, Pres. Trump isn’t a Democrat or a Republican. He’s a freewheeling, transactional pol who looks for wins,” tweeted The Washington Post’s Robert Costa in September.
Echoing his media colleague, The New York Times’ Peter Baker tweeted, “In some ways, Trump is the first independent to serve as president in modern times.”
“Trump the independent,” The Associated Press chimed in. “The deal President Trump cut with Democrats seem to show a different kind of president.”
And so we have it: Since Trump cut a deal with Democrats to raise the debt ceiling and now appears to be collaborating with U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi again to find a way, legislatively, to carve out a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants, he is officially a freewheeling nonpartisan. He is neither Democrat nor Republican. He is the mythical independent, here at last, beholden to nothing but his own gut instinct.
Except that’s not what’s really happening.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Trump is not your typical Republican. He violated long-held GOP orthodoxies to win the Republican nomination. He is a former registered Democrat who has donated heavily to Democratic politicians. No one in the Republican establishment wanted him to win the party’s nomination, and he seized it anyway, rather easily.
So, taking all of that into consideration, Trump is still (with very few exceptions) governing like a very conservative Republican. He has assembled the wealthiest and most conservative Cabinet in recent memory. He has appointed Neil Gorsuch, a constitutional originalist in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, to the U.S. Supreme Court, doing such a mitzvah for the hardline conservative cause that most complaints about his Democratic flirtations should be taken with a grain of salt.
His vice president is Mike Pence, whose politics are so retrograde conservative that he doesn’t want his wife dining with men alone. His attorney general is Jeff Sessions, a man who seeks to crush a criminal justice reform movement that was actually attracting a modicum of bipartisan support, unlike most every other issue in this country. His Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, does not believe in man-made climate change, and hopes to eventually end the very mission of the agency itself – environmental regulation. His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire opposed to the very nature of public school education in America.
Trump’s tax plan, which couldn’t have been written better by the Koch brothers themselves, is redistributionist in all the worst ways by drastically cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans. None of Trump’s working-class supporters will benefit.
And then, of course, there is health care. It’s remarkable the same Washington journalists who have covered Trump’s ceaseless quest to shred and destroy the Affordable Care Act can also walk away thinking this man is not a right-wing Republican extraordinaire. Trump, the supposed independent allegedly beholden to no party, is happy to do the bidding of party leaders by slashing Medicaid and overall coverage for the sickest and most needy people.
The latest iteration of this health care disaster, pushed by U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, would’ve thrown block grants for health care at individual states and hoped for the best. It was a nonsensical approach that, thankfully, has been temporarily shelved after failing to garner enough votes. Naturally, it had Trump’s blessing.
No flickering moments of bipartisanship can undo this record. They won’t change Trump’s predilection for stoking white nationalist fury. They won’t change the fundamental reality for so many that live in fear of what Trump will try to do next.
Yet journalists and pundits, caught chiefly in the New York-D.C. vortex, are willfully blind to this. For them, politics is a game, like taking in the Washington Nationals or Redskins on a Sunday afternoon. There are winners and losers, but these pundit-reporters aren’t on the field of play. They are fans, observing passionately, thrilled by the competition. No matter what, they can go home and eat at night. After all, they have health coverage.
No regular person seriously believes Trump is an independent, willing to dole out goodies to the right and left equally. A Muslim immigrant, a criminal justice reform advocate, an environmental activist, a person with pre-existing conditions clinging to health insurance – for these kinds of people, the pronouncements of the pundit class must read like insanity. They know exactly who he is.
And for conservatives fretting that Trump is too mercurial, too unreliable, unwilling to toe the Paul Ryan-Mitch McConnell party line, they should look to the evidence. They should be heartened.
Donald Trump, the record shows, is their man.
Ross Barkan writes a monthly column on the Trump administration for City & State. His work has appeared in the New York Observer, Village Voice, The Daily Beast, Salon, Harvard Review and more.