Sunday, January 15, 2017

Donald Trump Is a Party of One (which Might Help Heal the Partisan Rift)

The last post argued that Donald Trump won the presidency by leveraging the forces that dominate our culture, including the tools used in an extreme and highly toxic form of partisanship, and that his election therefore could be viewed as a natural product of that culture. This post will explore the paradox that Donald Trump is not really a part of the partisan political culture that spawned him, and how that might provide an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to heal their partisan rift.

Ours is basically a two-party system, in which Democrats battle Republicans in an "Us vs. Them" game with familiar partisan tactics, which they wield within unwritten yet recognized bounds. Candidates run as individuals, but the vast majority of them have a political identity that is integrally linked to a major party. They are in it to win one for their team, not just themselves.

Politics as a team sport is not inherently bad. Elections by their nature are competitive events, and party affiliation helps guide voters' choices by providing a fairly reliable indicator of where a candidate will stand on many important issues. Party affiliation also holds politicians accountable based on a core set of beliefs. It is expected and proper that a thinking politician will disagree with the party line at times, but there are negative consequences for doing so repeatedly.

Neither are the parties themselves inherently bad. I'm a Democrat, but I fully support the Republican Party's right to exist and have policy positions different from mine. It has produced some of our most extraordinary presidents -- e.g., Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt -- and a number of great legislators, judges, and statesmen. Conversely, there have been members of my own party with whom I have disagreed.

I think most of us, both those in political power and the citizens who support them, want to make our country better and stronger. That we disagree about how to do this is not a problem, but rather a strength. By allowing competing views, our system helps us identity the most desirable goals and means for achieving them. The problem lies in the manner in which we have been disagreeing.

Our system functions best when it has two healthy parties each of which will win some and lose some, when elections and governance proceed according to discernible norms, and when the parties generally manage to work together in good faith. Since the mid-1990s, the "working together in good faith" part of the equation has fallen by the wayside, and the norms have changed for the worse.

Partisanship has become so extreme that it involves not only advancing a party's own goals but also actively seeking to thwart the other party simply because it is the other party, without examining the merits of its proposals or the quality of the individuals its president nominates. Winning has become more important than governing, and demonizing one's opponent and preying upon the public's fear have become the norm in both the electoral and governing phases.  This is not OK.

This toxic level of partisanship among the party leadership, to which many citizens claim to object even as they debate politics amongst themselves in a similar fashion, has completely outdone itself by contributing to the election of a president who ultimately is of neither party. Donald Trump ran ostensibly as a Republican and his campaign leveraged the Republican Party's familiar partisan tools and some of its rhetoric, but two remarkable things set him apart from a typical partisan--
  • although he behaves as if all aspects of life are a competition, to him the relevant competition does not appear to be the familiar "Us vs. Them" variant so prevalent in our politics, but rather "Me vs. Everyone Else," including members of his own party; and 
  • he doesn't play by any set of discernible rules, but rather does or says whatever he wants and thus far has been accountable to no one.

Donald Trump is a Party of One, playing by his own rules for his own benefit.

We began to see evidence of this during the Republican primary, as Mr. Trump didn't merely disagree with the positions of his opponents but also mocked and bullied them. Mr. Trump's message throughout his campaign did include some classic Republican goals, like repealing Obamacare, tightening immigration laws, and cutting taxes. However, his foreign policy and national security positions largely went against the party line, as did his proposals to increase infrastructure spending and preserve Medicare. Throughout the process, he maintained his trademark bombastic style and offended one demographic group after another.

Donald Trump didn't sound or act like a typical Republican candidate, yet the party brass were unable to prevent his rise and eventual nomination. He beat them at their own game by leveraging their tactics and portions of their message. In so doing, he paradoxically presented himself as an anti-establishment candidate and won the votes of people frustrated with politics as usual.

By sharing a partisan label with Republicans but not really being one of them, Mr. Trump tests the limits of their partisanship. A number of prominent Republican officials and members of the media objected to Mr. Trump on principle early in the campaign and have stood by their stance. Others criticized him sharply during the primary but went on to support him, sometimes reluctantly, in the general election. Some supported him all along. Others opportunistically distanced themselves when it seemed inevitable that Mr. Trump would lose and take their party down with him but have cozied up again since he won one for their team.

Those Republican leaders who are reveling in Mr. Trump's victory are in for a rude awakening when they realize that Donald Trump didn't really win one for their team. He co-opted their brand to win one for himself.  Now he is poised to do many things they don't like. They should be concerned for the future of their party.

More troubling is what a Trump presidency will mean for our country. When Mr. Trump won, many people, myself included, hoped that he would choose to govern more responsibly than he campaigned.  His behavior so far is not encouraging.  Off-the-cuff calls with foreign leaders. Currying favor with Russia while simultaneously dismissing the US intelligence community. Claiming that he by law cannot have conflicts of interest because one provision of federal ethics law doesn't apply to the president, when it is obvious that his conflicts are real and significant. Not fully vetting cabinet nominees. Continuing to communicate primarily by tweet. Denigrating a CNN reporter at his one press conference. The list goes on.

Our government, which is based on laws, institutions, and norms, is about to be led by a president who seems unlikely to be guided or constrained by those laws, institutions, and norms. Mr. Trump appears to think that because he has been elected president he can now do anything he wants. Such imperious tendencies are antithetical to our system of government, with it constitutional checks and balances and other legal and cultural norms.

If Mr. Trump in fact attempts to disregard our constitutional checks and balances, or if he attempts to do something patently ridiculous or dangerous, Republicans and Democrats alike should oppose him and hold him accountable. Similarly, the Republicans should oppose him when he does something contrary to their party's conservative principles. The ultimate test of the limits of the Republicans' partisanship, therefore, will be how they respond to President Trump when he does one or more of these things. Will they stand behind him no matter what he does because he has an R after his name, or will they attempt to stop him when he starts to go too far?

Also of critical importance will be how the Democrats choose to respond. Will congressional Democrats embrace the "Politics of No!," which the Republicans consistently used against President Obama, and oppose President Trump at every turn solely for the sake of obstructing him, or will they choose to "go high" and base their positions on substance?  In many cases their opposition will be substantively justified, but when it isn't will they work with the Republicans? Although in the minority, will they demonstrate initiative and affirmatively reach out to the other side to try to find common ground, particularly on issues that until recent decades were not particularly partisan? Ending the toxic partisan rift is not a one-party exercise; it will require the Democrats to adopt a more constructive approach, too.

Maybe I am deluding myself because I am optimist who always looks for the silver lining, but I think the Trump presidency could bring about positive changes in our political culture.  Having just elected a president who ultimately is of neither party, each party would be well served by conducting an honest assessment of what it stands for and how it presents its message.  If President Trump starts to go off the rails, as I suspect he inevitably will, that will provide a perfect opportunity for the parties to abandon the current brand of partisanship that has hamstrung our government and replace it with a model in which they work together in a more principled way, motivated by their mutual concern for this country, its rule of law, and its constitutional principles. If the Trump presidency inspires such changes, it could help right the badly broken political culture that helped produce it.

*This blog post consists solely of the views and opinions of its author.


  1. Hello Concerned Citizen --

    I do not share your optimism. I don't think we can count one bit on Congressional Republicans resisting Trump. I think we now have the 'Trump' party and the *Women's* party (which I prefer! :-)). In other words, we will probably for the next two years get BOTH what Congressional Republicans want AND what Trump wants, where those two things are not inconsistent with each other. For example: Tax cuts for the rich, environmental and banking deregulation, and religiously conservative Supreme Court justices are not inconsistent with a border wall, trade protectionism, and infrastructure spending.

    So we will probably get all of that. Which makes me want to cry.

  2. I agree that many things that are bad from your and my perspective will get through in the areas where Trump and the Rs are aligned. It's already happening and it's not pretty. It is encouraging though that some Rs in Congress have shown some willingness to challenge some of the cabinet appointments, and most of the appointees themselves have deviated from the more egregious elements of the Trumpian platform. I do think that at some point he's going to do something that will be too much even for them, and as much as it will pain them they will need to shut him down. Time will tell.