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The Myth of Trump as a Centrist Dealmaker

From vaunted negotiator to feckless ideologue.
July 16, 2020
The Myth of Trump as a Centrist Dealmaker
(Original Photo by Harold M. Lambert/Lambert/Getty Images)

On a Sunday-morning talk show in December 2015, a rising politician had this to say about Senator Ted Cruz’s campaign for president, “Look at the way he’s dealt with the Senate, where he goes in there—like, you know, frankly, like a little bit of a maniac. You’re never going to get things done that way. . . . You can’t walk into the Senate, and scream, and call people liars, and not be able to cajole and get along with people. He’ll never get anything done. And that’s the problem with Ted.”

Who was this observant political figure?

It was Donald J. Trump, our screaming, lying, maniacal president who has shown an utter inability to cajole and get along with people.

It is this brand pivot, from a dealmaking anti-establishment businessman to an extremist far-right firebrand that has limited the president’s political aspirations more than anything else, in a way that is underappreciated by most of the political chattering class, for whom the concept of “Donald Trump, centrist dealmaker” never really took.

These liberal elites and Never Trumpers saw him from day one as a demagogic extremist, preying on racial animus, and throwing in with the seedier elements of the far right like Steve Bannon. But many of the (white) voters out in the rest of America who supported him in 2016 didn’t see him quite this way. They knew that he had taken a hard line on some issues like immigration. But they also saw the host of The Apprentice, a businessman outside the political system. They noticed he was willing to buck the Republicans on certain unpopular ideological totems like cutting Social Security or supporting “forever wars.” To many of those who ended up voting for him, it was Trump who was the moderating figure while Cruz (in the primary) and Clinton (in the general) were on the extremes.

Trump went out of his way to burnish this image. In the 2012 Republican primary, candidates were so scared to admit they would work with Democrats that famously every candidate on stage raised their hand when asked if they would walk away from a wildly lopsided deal with Democrats on spending cuts vs. tax increases. In 2016, Trump didn’t share this orthodoxy. He frequently discussed his ability to cut good deals with Democrats and made it part of his appeal. In a New Hampshire debate ahead of the 2016 primary he was asked about this by conservative journalist Mary Katharine Ham and replied: “With Congress you have to get everybody in a room and you have to get them to agree . . . you have to get people in, grab them, hug them, kiss them, and get the deal done.”

And since Trump was a businessman with vast experience hugging and kissing without consent . . . voters bought it!

In a Pew poll in January 2016, Donald Trump scored the best among “moderate” and “liberal” Republican registered voters (about a third of the primary electorate) when asked which of the remaining candidates would make a great or good president. In the critical Florida primary where Trump faced off against Marco Rubio, a native son who might be thought of as more appealing to the center of the party, exit polls show that Trump coasted among self-described “moderate” voters, winning 42 percent of the vote compared to 25 percent for Rubio and 13 percent for Kasich. In the general election the story was the same: Gallup and Pew found that voters saw Donald Trump as more moderate than Hillary Clinton, who was largely seen as liberal or very liberal. In a recent focus group I was observing of Trump voters who are having second thoughts, to a person they cited the fact that they thought he was a “businessman” who could get things done as a rationale for having voted for him.

For some reason there has been a conventional wisdom congealing in Washington that winning over the middle no longer matters and that we’ve moved to a base-only politics. But here’s the shocking #analysis: the candidate who does a better job of capturing the middle, generally wins closely contested elections!

So how’s Donald Trump doing on that count, now?

Not great, Bob!

Trump is now seen as way out on the conservative edge of the party while Biden is viewed as being towards the middle of the electorate.

This brings us to the great fallacy of the 2020 election, driven by 2016 PTSD: that Donald Trump just has to worry about “his base” in order to win the election. In reality there were a shitton (technical polling term) of voters who supported him last time but who are absolutely not part of the insane QAnon-believing, OAN-watching, red-hat-wearing Trump base.

So when Trump is railing about how Fox News has gone soft and is now filled with a bunch of libs, a lot of these voters look at him like he has three heads. When he’s talking about how older white Americans need to arm themselves because a caravan from Guatemala or black protesters from inner cities are going to ransack and burn down their homes, he might get roars from his dwindling rally audiences, but the rest of his voters cringe.

Many of them were looking for the politician who said he would get a bunch of people in a room and butter them up and get a great deal for the American people. They wanted a businessman who was going to be able to solve problems and help them make money.

Where has THAT guy been? We haven’t seen him since the campaign. Trump trashed that whole persona the second he gave the dark and weird and poorly attended inauguration speech, jammed Conservatism Inc.’s agenda down the Democrats’ throats, and made racist attacks on their congressional delegation.

So now he has painted himself into this corner where he’s spent three years doing exactly the things he correctly identified as problematic for Ted Cruz in 2016!

He’s seen as a lying maniac who in a time of crisis cares mostly about his beefs with Joe Scarborough and spreading weird Very Online memes about Nancy Pelosi’s ice-cream fridge, not the glad-handing business guy from the TV show who could be a bit gruff but knew how to close a deal.

The result is that he’s removed dealmaking Donald from his political tool box and the only thing he has left is Trashing Trump.

And that’s why, with 18 million Americans out of work and 137,000 dead, the president is in the Rose Garden throwing nonsensical haymakers about Biden wanting to abolish the suburbs and screwing up H1N1, hoping something lands, rather than giving his more moderate voters what they signed up for and walking down to Capitol Hill to give the swamp a lesson in the Art of the Deal.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.