Donald Trump craves favorable press coverage even more than most politicians, so he must have been very pleased over the weekend when the media obliged with a spate of articles suggesting a major pivot in his administration. The New York Times, Associated Press, and Axios all seemed to agree that the old Trump—the right-wing ogre who lived to please the Republican base—was gone, replaced by an independent, pragmatic leader who would transcend partisan divisions. Using the very thin reed of the debt ceiling deal Trump cut with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, pundits drew outrageously broad conclusions about his supposed transformation.
“Although elected as a Republican last year,” Peter Baker wrote at the Times, “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.” At Axios, Mike Allen contended that by governing as an independent, Trump can “liberate himself. He feels boxed in inside the White House and felt handcuffed to GOP leaders. No more. He had it with McConnell—thinks he’s past his prime, no longer capable of leading. Considers him low-energy. He has much more natural rapport with Schumer, a friend from the New York days.” Ken Thomas and Catherine Lucey of the AP claimed that “a president who spent months catering to the Republican conservative wing now appears unbound by ideology and untethered by party allegiances.”
These characterizations are pure fantasy, telling us much more about the centrist press’ hunger for fresh narratives about Trump than they do about Trump himself. The reality is that there is no new Trump. He remains the same man we’ve known not just as president this year but as a celebrity businessman for decades: a revanchist racist and sexist driven by spite. That such a man became president of the most powerful nation on earth is perhaps too incredible for many journalists to accept, so they try to explain his arbitrary actions as evidence of some deeper ideology or strategic pivot.
The much touted deal that prompted the “Trump is an independent” meme wasn’t even much of a deal at all. As John Marshall notes at Talking Points Memo, “The ‘deal’ people are talking about is a minor procedural accommodation, an agreement not to go through a round of legislative hostage taking tied mainly to the need to increase the debt-limit—something that should be abolished altogether. It is important to note how minuscule this accommodation really is. Beyond that, it is important to note how much the deal itself is only over a kind of legislative misbehavior which as recently as a decade ago would have been all but unthinkable: holding the full faith and credit hostage to the right of the GOP House caucus.”
There’s also nothing new or surprising about Trump’s taking the opportunity to betray Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. They represent the elite business wing of the GOP, while Trump is the undisputed leader of the white nationalist wing. Humiliating Ryan and McConnell, as Trump has long done with snide tweets, is a way for him to assert dominance over the party establishment. Doing so comes naturally because for Trump, politics and indeed life itself are all about establishing and maintaining supremacy. That Trump betrayed his allies to elevate himself is the same old Trump we know all too well.
As even the Times’ Baker admits, Trump’s record of governance is consistent with Republican orthodoxy, indeed shows a commitment to the party’s far-right wing. “Mr. Trump had the potential to cross lines, but once inaugurated, he chose a hard-right path of banning visitors from certain Muslim-majority countries, pulling out of a climate change accord and seeking to overturn Mr. Obama’s health care program,” he wrote, in a sentence that undermines the thrust of the article. But Baker and other journalists are loath to draw any conclusions from Trump’s record thus far in the White House. To see Trump as he really is would be to admit that the United States will be in crisis as long as Trump is its president. Rather than confront this reality, centrist journalists prefer to spin a massive web of denial for naive readers.