Obama promised to change the way Washington worked, but his deals with Republicans did little to actually build a lasting rapport with them, while also angering his own Democratic Party. Trump, who despite manifestly disliking his predecessor sometimes comes across as a bizarro version of Obama, also seems to be threatening to change the way Washington works, showing a willingness to reach across the aisle.
Believe it when you see it. Trump truly has fewer ties to his party, either as a matter of political views or in terms of relationships and institutional dependency, but his betrayal of GOP leaders last week is one of the weaker examples of that fact. Even if the Schumer-Pelosi deal were of greater import than simply being a three-month, ad-hoc agreement, and even if a president bucking his own party really were unprecedented, it is simply a fact that it is practically impossible to break the two-party duopoly in contemporary American politics, as Peter Baker wisely notes in his own piece on Trump being untethered from his party.
This is particularly true of a centrist third party. Nonetheless, journalists write fan-fiction about a possible third party so frequently that Brendan Nyhan can practically write debunkers in his sleep. Now Matthew Walther imagines that Trump leaving the GOP would, “in a single Death Star-like instant, destroy the illusion that the calcified two-party system accurately represents the views and aspirations of some 300-plus million Americans.” Yet even though Walther pretends that this would destroy the existing two parties, his version of the fantasy requires that most Republicans would still line up behind Trump. The duopoly is dead, long live the duopoly.
A Trumpist third party would presumably espouse some flavor of centrism—or at least would draw from both fiscally non-conservative Republicans and socially conservative Democrats. (This would make it the mirror image of the fiscally conservative, socially liberal party often postulated for that other cranky, aging New York businessman, Michael Bloomberg.)
Were Trump to attempt to form a third party today, as opposed to if he had done so after dropping out of the GOP primary in 2016, he would enjoy the unique advantage of the presidency. But in most other ways, he would be especially unsuited to leading a new third party. You can’t build a Trumpist third party, because there’s little evidence a coherent Trumpism exists—his agenda seems more like an agglomeration of white grievance politics and a grab bag of other things that caught Trump’s attention.
Walther imagines that leaving the GOP would free Trump to pursue any number of programs that are antithetical to Republican dogma but might attract Democratic voters. But Trump has barely been able to interest himself even in those policies on which he agrees with the institutional GOP. His lack of any coherent ideology means he can, in a given election, pull voters who might lean toward either or neither of the existing parties, but also that there’s no organizing principle to keep them around except cult of personality. That personality is deeply unpopular and heading toward record lows in polling. Trump would need to gather a coalition of powerful team members to build a third party, but so far, as the rapidly rotating White House revolving door and his relations with McConnell (in particular) show, Trump has not been very good at keeping allies. There were never enough pure Trump supporters to elect Trump president, but by briefly capturing the Republican Party he was able to win. Already, he’s starting to slough those people off, even as his most hard-core supporters remain steadfast. A party whose membership consisted only of Trump’s base might set a modern record for third-party prowess in raw vote percentage, but it would almost certainly lose the White House and fail to gain a foothold in Congress.