In recent weeks, Washington has been abuzz over the new Donald Trump. He was quarreling with Republicans. He was dealing with Democrats. He had rid himself of Steve Bannon. He had elevated Gen. John Kelly. Finally, the long-awaited pivot had happened, and the coverage was glowing.
On September 9, the New York Times wrote that Trump “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.”
On September 19, Mike Allen’s morning Axios email was touting “the Kelly effect.” The ex-general had revamped White House processes so the paper flow to Trump read more like Morning Joe than Breitbart. “Trump’s exposure to populist nationalism is now close to zero,” Allen wrote, and readers should “look for the latest version of Trump to be on display when he speaks to the U.N. General Assembly.”
Well, it was nice while it lasted. Trump took the stage at the UN and turned it into a campaign rally that sounded a lot more like Bannon than Scarborough. “Mr. Trump promised to ‘crush loser terrorists,’ mocked North Korea’s leader as ‘Rocket Man’ and declared that parts of the world ‘are going to hell,’” summarized the New York Times.
He also elevated populist nationalism into a foreign policy philosophy, announcing, “I will always put America first. Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.”
Then Trump warmly embraced the GOP’s scuttling of bipartisan health care talks in favor of the Graham-Cassidy bill. The bill breaks all of Trump’s health care promises and has no chance of a single Democratic vote, but it’s the GOP’s health care bill, and Trump is all for it. (As you read Trump’s tweet here, remember Graham-Cassidy allows states to waive out of the Obamacare regulations protecting patients with preexisting conditions.)
It’s become a joke on politics Twitter that Trump’s pivot is always around the corner, that the media can’t stop announcing that this is the moment Trump finally became president. But there will be no pivot. There will be no moment Trump suddenly and permanently grows into the job. Kelly can stanch Trump’s paper flow all he wants: Trump can still read Twitter, and click over to Breitbart, and watch Fox & Friends, and he does all those things.
What confuses the media about Trump is that he defies Washington’s categories. It’s true that he’s not a typical elected Republican, and that he feels little love for the GOP’s congressional leadership. But that doesn’t make him an independent. That makes him a very typical base Republican. He’s the kind of Republican who hangs out in the Breitbart comments section, who listens to Sean Hannity on the radio — not the type of Republican who donates to fundraisers for Paul Ryan.
If Trump’s policy preferences sometimes come out scrambled or inconsistent, well, that’s how most people’s policy preferences come out. If there are plenty of Republican elected officials he doesn’t like, well, that’s also true for most Republican voters. If he appears more enthusiastic about abstract border security than about deporting actual DREAMers, well, that’s what most people’s immigration preferences look like. But Trump’s tribal loyalties are fierce, his worldview is shaped by conservative media, and he never forgets who his true allies are.
This has always been Trump’s secret advantage. His connection with the GOP base runs so deep because he authentically is a member of the GOP base — he’s just the rare base Republican who had the money, celebrity, and media skills to successfully run for president despite never having held elected office.
And Trump continues to be that guy. For all his frustrations with elected Republicans, and for all Kelly’s efforts to bury him in professionalized “decision memos,” Trump still gets his news from Fox News and Breitbart and his own Twitter followers. He still hears about how Obamacare is failing and Democrats are conspiring. Like many voters, Trump often seems less motivated by love of his party than by fear and loathing of the other party. Negative partisanship is the tie that binds. It’s why Trump always comes back to his core politics: He may not love Republicans, but his worldview, and his information sources, is built around fighting Democrats.
Trump has been in the presidency for nine months now, and if there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that he is who he has always shown himself to be. He’s not changing.