12 September 2017

Will Trump lead to a three-party system?

While the Republican party holds the majority in both houses of Congress,  last week seemed to show that a deal between an ostensibly Republican President and the minority party was all it took to get the debt-ceiling increased for another three months. That signaled fresh disarray in the GOP, since a united front should have sufficed to thwart any alliance between Trump and the Democratic party. Republicans were caught flat-footed by Trump's swerve. Not long before, he was threatening to veto any bill to raise the debt ceiling that did not include funding for his beautiful border wall. Now, anticipating emergency spending for hurricane relief, he backed a Democratic plan to raise the ceiling without the spending cuts demanded by the fiscal conservatives and deficit hawks in Trump's own party. For some GOP congressmen, this was the latest betrayal; for others, perhaps, it was the first. It provoked fresh speculation on Morning Joe and other talking-head shows about a Republican crack-up separating the ideologues from the Trumpists, the latter defined by little but their personal loyalty to the President and their likely emulation of his pragmatic/opportunist/ad hoc approach to politics. Of course, some observers have been waiting for the last quarter-century for the GOP to split, or ever since Pat Buchanan's primary campaigns. At first it was expected, or hoped for, that the libertarians would split from the social conservatives. Now the threat seems to be the departure of voters who share Buchanan's economic nationalism, and probably a degree of his cultural conservatism, but are otherwise as unpredictable as their current hero. The debt-ceiling decision may or may not prove a definitive moment in retrospect, but it's immediately telling the the President, if I understand his motives correctly, was willing to waive all previous conditions for the sake of hurricane relief, while rank-and-file Republicans spent the days of Harvey and Irma arguing over who among them had been hypocritical for demanding relief now while voting against it in the past, or whether past bills were more pork-laden than current measures. At times like this the cut-the-bullshit approach that Trump's admirers attribute to him -- rightly or not -- seems more like the right one. At the same time, his deal with the Democrats should refute for good the old argument that businessmen in politics will be fiscal conservatives. That argument never should have held water, given how often businessmen like Donald Trump go into debt in order to carry out their projects, or declare bankruptcy to further their interests. As President, Trump clearly isn't going to fit into anyone's mold. You can try to label or pigeonhole him based on some position he's taken that you admire or (more likely?) despise, but he's never going to be that predictable because he's never going to be an ideologue. Whether a new party can emerge and contend credibly for power without an ideological base is a big question for the future, but if Trump is tempted to break with the GOP, there's probably no better circumstance imaginable for the instant credibility of a new political party than if it has a standing President behind it. Such speculation should be kept on a low burner, however, until after next year's congressional primaries, when we'll most likely see whether Trump and Breitbart can bend the Republican party to their will. If they can't, then all bets are off.

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