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Yes, Trump is an “independent”

But that doesn’t mean what you think it means.

President Trump Departs White House En Route To North Dakota For Tax Reform Speech Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

A whiplash of takes over the weekend began with the claim that Donald Trump, fresh off a bargain with congressional Democrats, is not really a Republican but instead the country’s first independent president. It didn’t take long for social scientists, commentators, and others in the common-sense-based community to point out that one mediocre bargain with Democrats does not an independent dealmaker make.

And they are right. Trump is a Republican. But he’s not a very good one. And in a way, the clumsy argument that he’s somehow above partisanship is pointing in the right direction.

Political scientists have long noted that a significant share of independent voters aren’t all that independent. They may think they are, but they vote almost as reliably for their party as self-identified partisans do. Trump seems to think he is a “loose cannon,” even though he’s completely embedded in the GOP.

But that doesn’t mean independents are just like other partisans. It matters that they don’t want to affiliate with one of the two parties. Samara Klar and Yanna Krupnikov show that many people identify as independents because they are turned off by partisan “politics as usual.” That sounds like something you’d have heard from Trump’s campaign. Trump is a partisan who doesn’t really know what that means.

And that’s why he’s not particularly good at politics.

To be very clear, everything Trump has accomplished has come from his acting as a Republican:

  • He won the Republican nomination by appealing to Republican voters who were frustrated with existing Republicans.
  • He won the general election by appealing to Republican voters who would vote for any Republican before they voted for a typical Democrat.
  • His agenda is mostly the Republican agenda. He nominated Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court because Republican-aligned interests told him to. He campaigned on the idea that the Affordable Care Act didn’t do enough, and then backed a repeal bill that moves in the opposite direction.

What’s more, the parts of the Trump agenda that aren’t very Republican — trade protectionism, the wall, health reform that would increase coverage — have been dead ends.

Why? Because Trump isn’t a team player. He wants to make his own deals, and he’s not well-versed in all the deals that are being made around him — all the deals that are embodied in a well-functioning political party.

But each party represents a history of deals that can’t just be ignored. A political party is a coalition of political actors, from politicians to voters, who coordinate to get things done in a democracy. This means they have to set aside some differences. Someone says, “Okay, I want to restrict abortions, and you want to pay fewer taxes.” (Or “I want police to be more accountable in how they treat the black community, and you want a higher minimum wage.”) “How about we join forces and get both things?” And since there are so many people and so many issues, these trade-offs become complicated and are constantly renegotiated. This gets messy. Parties are institutions that manage those trade-offs, from nominations to campaigns to legislation to administration.

Almost every real accomplishment of the Trump administration has been something that Republicans have been working on for some time. But credit Republicans (and the allied conservative movement) as much as you credit Trump.

(Trump may end up changing the Republican Party and conservatism in some way, but that’s far from done at this point.)

So Trump is not a Republican in much the same way that Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat. Except Trump won.

Sanders’s agenda overlaps with the Democrats’ agenda about as much as Trump’s does with the Republicans’. Both candidates were wise enough to run within the party they critiqued, knowing they could never win as independents. For all the attempts to compare Trump and Sanders, the only significant similarity is that both think the political establishment is a swamp, even as everything they have ever accomplished in politics has come from coordinating with a party.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether Trump is a Republican who doesn’t play well with his party or an independent who is inextricably tied to the Republican Party.

The problem is imagining that whatever he is can be useful in a system with parties.