A vital ingredient in Donald Trump’s electoral success was his willingness to buck convention. With his undisciplined public statements, and a makeshift, bare-bones campaign machine, he did not – to put it mildly – follow the standard playbook for presidential aspirants.
This unconventional streak extended to policy. Trump beat 16 opponents in the Republican presidential primary, all of them with more political experience and service to the party behind them. It is widely appreciated that he did this by outflanking his intra-party rivals often on their right: promising a border wall with Mexico; calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States; stridently defending controversial uses of force by police against minorities, and condemning activists seeking to draw attention to it.
Less universally appreciated is that Trump was simultaneously, on some issues, an outlier to the left of the party consensus during his primary contest. While pledging to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act reforms, he promised to replace it with healthcare for all. He said he would give no tax cuts to the wealthiest citizens (though his verbal statements were inconsistent with his campaigns published tax plan). He proposed a major infrastructure investment plan to put Americans to work.
To no small extent, his inexperience facilitated this. Uninitiated in the dogmas of his new party’s conservative intellectual class, he did not perceive the need to genuflect to their obsessions of cutting taxes and slashing redistributive government spending. This was a risky, if often unwitting, experiment on his part. But his success in stealing the nomination revealed small-government conservative ideology to have shallower roots among the Republican voting base than many had supposed. With appeals to nationalism, culturally reaction, and white racial resentment, Trump overcame the resistance of the party’s leadership, elected officials, and donors to mount a hostile takeover. Unsurprisingly he emerged from victory feeling neither great loyalty to those groups, nor great regard for their political acumen.
This led some to expect that, on entering office, Trump would make use of his unusual freedom from party ties to reach out to Democrats in Congress to collaborate on some issue of overlapping priorities, such as infrastructure investment. By this means he could notch up an early legislative win, consolidate his status as a breaker of partisan norms, and potentially divide his opponents over the question of whether to cooperate with a controversial president.
He did not take this course. Instead, during his first months he hewed strikingly to Republican orthodoxies in his major policy efforts: supporting the Congressional party’s push to slash federal subsidies for healthcare, and endorsing a ‘tax reform’ including sizeable cuts for the wealthy.
September 2017, however, witnessed a couple of events that breathed new life into the fading idea of Trump as bipartisan deal-maker. First, at a White House meeting, he shocked and embarrassed Republican legislative leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell by siding with their Democratic opposite numbers Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer over the details of ‘raising the debt ceiling’ (a technical, of late controversial, legislative manoeuvre, periodically required to service America’s national debt).
Only days later, Republicans were greeted by a public statement from Pelosi and Schumer, after a private dinner at the White House, that they had reached a deal with the president to extend protections against deportation for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. The White House quickly moved to play down the claim of a settled deal. But this unwelcome surprise, combined with the debt ceiling affair, stoked Republican fears that Trump’s relationship with Republican leaders had broken down, and that he might be setting the stage for a larger-scale betrayal of the party’s agenda.
By the end of September, talk of a Trump pivot towards bipartisanship had come to seem overheated. After intemperate remarks at an Alabama rally and on Twitter, the president has become involved in a heated public argument over the right of black athletes to protest policy brutality during the national anthem before National Football League games.
This served as a reminder, if one were needed, that the core of Trump’s political appeal to his supporters lies in his taste for divisive, inflammatory and often needless interventions on racially-charged topics. This is the president, after all, who as recently as August was pilloried from all sides for failing to unequivocally condemn white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, even when one of their number drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring many more.
Both these trends will likely continue for as long as Trump remains in office. One the one hand, Republicans will rightly distrust him because ‘not one of their own’, and not authentically in sympathy with much of their agenda. They know he is well capable of betraying them without guilt if it should suit his needs of the moment. Democrats, meanwhile, know that they cannot risk being too closely associated with him, even if tangible policy or legislative rewards are on offer. This is because at any moment he might derail efforts at pragmatic deal-making with a lurch into the ‘culture wars’, in rhetoric or policy, that inflames the Democratic base. This makes cooperation risky, and potentially very costly, for Democratic elected officials.
Both Congressional parties would like to make use of a president who often appears shallow and easily led when it comes to policy issues. But both know that he is fundamentally untrustworthy and unreliable – except to the extent his predictable unpredictability can be relied on to make life difficult for those who seek to do business with him.