It was just last year that Donald Trump ran for president promising cheaper health care for his supporters and greater trade protections. He rejected cuts to Medicare and Medicaid and pledged a new national commitment to infrastructure. In other words, though on paper Trump was the Republican nominee, in reality he was a kind of independent who ignored conservative dogma to forge a message of welfare statism and racial demagoguery.
As president, however, Trump has kept the racial demagoguery but abandoned everything else, linking his fortunes, and his domestic policy agenda, to a right-wing Republican establishment. His personal volatility aside, Donald Trump has governed as an almost doctrinaire conservative Republican.
This fact has not prevented a spate of claims that with his unorthodox style and messaging, President Trump is largely independent of the traditional two-party system. “Although elected as a Republican last year, Mr. Trump has shown in the nearly eight months in office that he is, in many ways, the first independent to hold the presidency since the advent of the current two-party system around the time of the Civil War,” wrote Peter Baker for the New York Times. He wasn’t alone; an Associated Press analysis declared that “Trump the independent” had “emerged in full.”
It’s not hard to see why. Throughout August, Trump singled out Republicans for attack, blasting them on his Twitter feed and saving particular fury for Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jeff Flake. And last week, Trump threw the GOP into disarray when he backed a Democratic proposal—from leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi—to fund the government, provide hurricane disaster relief, and raise the debt ceiling for only three months, rather than the 18 months requested by Republican leaders.
If the test for independence is merely a willingness to upend partisan governance, then that decision fits the bill. It was an independent moment. But it’s far too much to say that Donald Trump is an independent president, or that he’s challenged the “duopoly.” (If one moment is all it takes, then who wouldn’t qualify as an “independent” president?) For as much as Trump has been publicly antagonistic toward Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and other Republicans, his priorities are the party’s. He may not act or speak like a typical Republican president, but he governs like one.
For the first six months of his presidency, Trump pursued dramatic cuts to the social safety net. Both Republican bills to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act—the American Health Care Act in the House and the Better Care Reconciliation Act in the Senate—would have cut subsidies and slashed Medicaid to the bone, leaving millions of Americans without health insurance. President Trump called the House version “mean” but never wavered in his support.
In his budget proposal, Trump asked Congress to take a knife to essential programs for poor and working Americans—far from a fulfillment of his campaign promises to protect the working class. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would be cut by nearly $200 billion over 10 years, while Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—an already barebones program—is cut by $21 billion. He cuts $800 billion from Medicaid, and asks for cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance.
His zeal for tax cuts is a central pillar of the GOP. Trump is yet to produce a detailed plan for tax reform, but we know that about half the benefits of Trump’s $3.5 trillion tax cut would go to the top 1 percent of households, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center at the Brookings Institute. This is almost indistinguishable from tax plans produced by his rivals during the Republican presidential primaries. Jeb Bush, for example, proposed an estimated $3.4 trillion tax cut with most of the benefits going to high earners. Marco Rubio called for an even pricier tax cut—$6.8 trillion over 10 years—with similar distributional effects.
Everywhere you look, Trump has adopted Republican dogma as his own. His business-friendly policies on education and the environment reflect GOP orthodoxy, and his judicial nominees meet the ideological standards imposed by party activists. Neil Gorsuch, confirmed to the Supreme Court earlier this year, is a model conservative judge. Trump may praise himself for the Gorsuch pick, but any Republican president would have made it.
If one looks at presidential politics as a story of individuals, then Trump is a kind of independent whose alliance with Republican leaders is tenuous and opportunistic. But this discounts his relationship with the Republican Party as a whole. Trump is the leader of the party, and by virtue of this is inextricably tied to the party infrastructure. Every choice he makes, from proposals and policies to the people he nominates and appoints, is drawn from a well constructed by the Republican Party and built to its specifications. Trump might not be a product of the party, but the same can’t be said of his White House.
And his personal independence has its limits. Trump didn’t buck the GOP on judicial nominees or tax cuts: He did so to strike a narrow budget deal with few repercussions for the Republican Party’s larger priorities. As a party leader, Donald Trump is a little more flexible—more willing to challenge and criticize his allies. But we shouldn’t read too much into it. Trump is a Republican, and this is a Republican administration.