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Trump’s Potential Triangulation


Yesterday I argued that President Trump’s pivot is real, and it’s spectacular. After Trump’s head-scratching deal with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi which turned the conventional wisdom in Washington upside down, it’s hard to argue otherwise.  But let’s be clear about what this pivot is, and what it isn’t. This pivot doesn’t mean Trump will start working with Democrats to get GOP priorities done. That’s absurd. What it means, if applied broadly, is that Trump will dump anything Congressional Republicans favor which represent heavy lift items and instead make his agenda the five to ten most popular things in both parties, with the understanding that the weak-spined GOP will buckle before you, while daring Democrat elites to own the defeat of popular bipartisan ideas in service to their “hashtag resistance” base.

What this amounts to is a triangulation from a position of strength over your own party (technically). It comes from a recognition that the country largely hates the GOP. A combative, populist non-ideological president not hung up on small government budget principles who infuriates the left and says anti-politically correct things and delivers on judges is, as it turns out, what “his own party” wants. The assumption that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell represent some large constituency of Republican voters turns out not to be true.

The fact is that the Republican Party has been the party of Trump for a lot longer than Washington thinks. It has been a politically and socially populist party that was not libertarian in any economic sense for quite some time. Congressional Republicans simply didn’t keep up – they had the illusion that voters who elected them were voting for the things they like. It’s not illogical – “I think like Arthur Brooks and my voters keep electing me; therefore my voters think like Arthur Brooks” – but it turned out to be wrong, and Trump proved that it was wrong.

Donors and activists and thinkers might prefer the GOP be the party of Marco Rubio and Nikki Haley and Ben Sasse, but that just isn’t the case. The frame of establishment moderates vs. base conservatives is false – it was a sideshow to the main event. The hyperventilating rhetoric of conservative groups and the smug condescending background quotes from leadership aides are designed to inflate their respective factions’ importance. But these factions are nothing compared to Trump.

When was the GOP Richard Nixon’s party? From 1968 until 1974. When was it Ronald Reagan’s party? Let’s say 1977-1990. When was it George H.W. Bush’s party? From the Gulf War until the recession in 1991. In 1994 it became Newt Gingrich’s party, from when he effectively took over the House conference until he resigned. It was DeLay’s party until 2000, when it became George W. Bush’s party until 2007. It was never McCain or Romney’s party – it was mostly leaderless between 2008 and 2016 except the brief Tea Party summer of 2010, when it didn’t have a leader but it had a clear direction. Since late 2015 the GOP has been the party of Trump.

Mitch McConnell has been the most effective agent of the GOP donor class for a long time – but that’s not the party. The party is the voters. And by that measure, it’s never been McConnell’s party. The conferences he and Ryan represent are simply not proxies for the average GOP voter. So everything they do blows up in their faces and people somehow still don’t seem to understand why.

The problem with McConnell and Ryan is not that they are insufficiently ideological. It’s that they represent a party to which the president of their party (technically) does not belong, a theory of government that he explicitly ran against. There is no mandate for the “Better Way” agenda. There is no mandate for McConnell’s agenda – whatever that is. There is a mandate for something like Trump’s agenda – or big pieces of it. And he’s flexible about which pieces.

Congressional leadership thinks if they and Trump disagree, clearly Trump should give way and follow their lead. But why? He beat them, and they couldn’t beat him. The party didn’t go for any of the other candidates because they wanted him. Yet since his inauguration congressional Republicans have acted like they have an equal seat at the table. They don’t have that, and they don’t deserve it. And Trump should stop pretending they do.

An actual pivot would have Trump embracing popular Democratic ideas, often coupling them with popular Republican ideas, and having Democratic votes kill the compromises. What does that look like? DACA for e-Verify. Minimum wage increase for welfare work requirements. Cutting payroll taxes while raising the phase out. Infrastructure billions for employee labor reforms. Universal catastrophic coverage in exchange for regulatory relief to drive down health care prices. The deals are there to be made.

Washington keeps waiting for Trump to play ball with the least popular group of politicians in the United States. Success for the GOP looks a lot more like dumping the pre-2016 lineup and thinking about how to fuse conservative ideas with what little coherent philosophy of Trumpism there is. What’s making this difficult is the insistence that congressional leaders have the same kind of mandate and standing with the public and in the process that Trump does. As long McConnell and Ryan think they – and their pre-Trump ideas – are equals or senior partners in this process, they will continue to fail.

The voters don’t want Ryanism or Cruzism or Kasichism or McConnellism. They want Trumpism – or at least what they think that is. GOP voters want leaders who mesh with Trump and his agenda because that reflects the mandate he won. They can’t stand the fact that their Congressional leaders are crosswise with the president. So it’s a dysfunctional relationship, because McConnell and Ryan are operating from a false perception that they are in charge. They’re not. Trump hasn’t yet cemented that fact in his own mind, but when he does, things will change – and this could be the first indication that they are changing.