“Trump is exactly what Republicans are not,” former Missouri GOP Sen. John Danforth wrote recently.
While that may seem extreme, the statement raises a serious issue about Trump’s relationship to the Republicans. “GOP leaders still puzzle over President Trump,” said a Boston Globe headline.
Is Trump a Republican? He looks increasingly like an independent. He attacks Republicans daily, often more fiercely than Democrats.
Trump could be the second independent president in U.S. history. John Tyler, the vice president who took office when the president died just one month after the 1841 inauguration, had been added to the Whig Party ticket for regional balance. The Whigs were the majority in Congress, but they fought with Tyler.
So they tossed Tyler out of the party with the result that he had no party and no domestic policy success. In a 2017 survey of historians, he ranked 39th out of 43 presidents.
Trump may have become a Republican purely to have a path to national office. Like Tyler, he was once a Democrat. By now, it is evident that he gets along with congressional Republicans no better than Tyler did with his adopted party.
Without strong loyalty to the party whose label they carried, both Tyler and Trump could easily be classified as presidents who were really independents. And both found the American party system made it difficult for an independent to deal with Congress.
So far, Trump is having no more success with Congress than did Tyler, who, like Trump, thought he could succeed by stressing his ultra-conservative principles. Tyler was said to dislike slavery, though he supported it and kept slaves. At best, Trump is equivocal about white supremacists.
Having alienated Congress, Tyler was the first president ever to face an impeachment effort. Without real party support, he risked removal. It’s early, but Trump could face Republican hostility matching his own open disdain for Senate Majority Leader McConnell, House Speaker Ryan and Sen. McCain.
Trump clearly believes that he has a special link with many voters, regardless of his rocky relationship with the GOP. By keeping the support of his “core” voters, he may reason that elected Republicans will have to follow him or risk losing to Trump-backed primary opponents. In effect, he would create his own party.
The media may not emphasize his ties to the “core” to his satisfaction, but his tweets provide a direct line of communication. The adulation of his backers and Fox News’ favorable coverage could be all he needs. He is unfazed by falling poll numbers, probably because he beat the polls in his surprise electoral victory.
Maine has had more experience than other states with independent chief executives. In recent decades, it elected two independent governors. Gov. LePage might also be classified an independent in the Trump pattern.
The two independents, James Longley and Angus King, were both Democrats who believed they would have a better chance of communicating their message and getting on the ballot if they left the party.
Winner with less than a popular majority, Longley was blunt talker, not above name-calling. His term was characterized by conflict. An upset winner frequently hostile to both parties, he chose not to run for re-election.
LePage has won the governorship twice without a popular majority. He shares much of Longley’s approach, confrontational and almost entirely independent of party, though he ran as a Republican. His positions leave little room for compromise. He often echoes Trump.
King was different from the others. He did not attack the parties, adopting some policies favorable to each. He was seen as a modernizing moderate. When he ran for reelection, most Democrats and some Republicans were with him, and he won by a wide margin.
The lesson of these three Maine governors seems to be that an independent’s greatest likelihood of success results from not taking independence to the point of going to war with the parties in the legislative branch.
Trump’s independence stems from having won when nobody, probably including himself, thought he would. As president, he continues to campaign in the belief that what worked to elect him will work in governing. He tries to intimidate congressional Republicans and spurns Democrats.
If Trump is correct in his belief that he represents a new kind of politics, perhaps he could transform American government.
More likely, he will find that an independent president must make an extra effort to work with Congress, not against it, or risk suffering Tyler’s fate. Having dodged impeachment, Tyler was denied nomination for a second term. His successor was a Democrat.