President Trump’s intensifying feud with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has led to speculation that this could be a prelude to a formal break with the Republican Party.
I have no idea what’s going on in Trump’s mind. And it’s absolutely true that he’s constructed an inner circle in the White House that has very few connections to the Republican network.
And yet: Such a move would doom what is already a seriously damaged presidency. It would be a huge unforced error, placing Trump in a box with two failed 19th century presidents, John Tyler and Andrew Johnson, both of whom tried and failed to govern without a party.
The temptation for Trump, if there is one, is probably in the fact that many hard-core Trump supporters say they dislike Republicans in Congress, especially House Speaker Paul Ryan and McConnell. They also say they hate the Republican “establishment.”
But how it works in practice is that those Republican-hating Republicans are also, generally, the most solid Republican voters. There are approximately zero establishment-hating conservatives who are currently shaky for Trump but would flock to him if he removed the “R” after his name. Nor do there appear to be many moderates (let alone liberals) who would consider Trump if only he wasn’t calling himself a Republican.
On the other hand, at the elite level, a formal break with Republicans would almost certainly be very costly. Republican party actors, from politicians to donors to activists, would have to choose between sticking with Trump and risking their place in the party, or dumping Trump and risking the wrath of some voters. It’s difficult to know how they would choose, but surely he would lose at least some people who tolerate him because he’s in their party but would like an excuse to more openly oppose him.
And what Democrats would join him? Perhaps there are small numbers of conservative Democrats who might have been tempted if Trump was wildly popular. But since he’s not, it’s hard to see why anyone would risk it — especially since Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he’ll reward his friends only with betrayal, and that’s without the further betrayal a party break would be.
All of that would have severe, and perhaps immediate, consequences. Trump’s already having problems recruiting for staff positions in the White House and for executive branch positions; losing the tug of party loyalty would make that even more difficult. At the same time, Senate Republicans would lose at least some of their reason for deferring to him in confirmations. If he managed to recruit and nominate liberal Democrats for executive branch positions, Republicans would treat them the way they treated Obama’s nominees (and kill them through inaction); if he nominated people with no party background, it’s quite possible Republicans might oppose them, too.
So a partyless Donald Trump would find it even harder to staff his administration than it already is.
In a worst-case but entirely plausible scenario, it might mean Vice President Mike Pence choosing the party over Trump and beginning (whether he resigned or not) a 2020 campaign for the now-vacant Republican nomination, and it’s entirely plausible that if Pence left he might take several cabinet-level officials with him. Recall that Pence was involved in the transition; we don’t know how many of those he selected might be inclined to jump ship if Pence did.
Nor is there any policy-related reason for Trump to leave the party which nominated and elected him, even if we pretend he cares about policy.
It’s true that a non-Republican Trump would find it easier to push for infrastructure spending and for a tax overhaul that punished rather than rewarded the rich. It’s less clear that Trump really wants those things, however. Nor would it be likely he’d get them. There certainly doesn’t appear to be any caucus of Trump-loving Republicans in Congress who would shift their positions to his if he diverged further from Republican orthodoxy. Instead, there are plenty of House and Senate Republicans who are willing to tolerate the president as long as he backs their policy preferences.
And Trump’s apparent core convictions — the border wall, discriminatory immigration policies, and to some extent trade restrictions — are in trouble because they split Republicans while leaving Democrats united against them. Leaving the GOP might force a confrontation among Republicans over those issues, yes, but what would that accomplish for Trump?
The last president (as far as we know) to speculate about leaving his party was Richard Nixon, who imagined he could leave moderate and liberal Republicans behind and put together a new coalition of conservative Republicans and southern Democrats. In other words, he anticipated the future Republican Party and thought about trying to make it a reality in 1970 with one sudden action. But Trump wouldn’t be pulling together two groups separated for the moment by party loyalty but otherwise quite compatible. Instead, he would be attempting to govern with only die-hard Trump personal loyalists, a group which would be almost entirely a subset of the current Republican Party.
John Tyler is currently ranked 39th of 43 presidents and Andrew Johnson was ranked 42nd in the latest C-SPAN survey of historians. Trump certainly seems destined to join them in the bottom tier, but there are few things he could do to solidify that ranking as obvious as leaving the Republican Party and finding out just how few pure Trump loyalists there really are.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics. Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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