President Trump had a tumultuous week, with staff shake-ups, public infighting in his administration, and the high-profile defeat of Obamacare repeal in the Senate. Underscoring the tension were the public attacks by Trump on Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the abrupt firing of Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff.
Overshadowing the week were the tensions between mainstream GOP staffers like Priebus and former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who has still been hanging around the White House.
This has all been taken as the collapse of the Republican establishment figures who had been brought into the new administration in January as a gesture of reconciliation and party unity. There is no longer any clear sense of the ideology of Trump administration. However, there is precedent for a president falling-out with his own party. It provides an instructive look at how such a split might play out.
Remember Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too
On April 4, 1841, the ninth president William Henry Harrison died, just thirty days after his inauguration. The next day, John Tyler became the first vice president to ascend to the highest office in the land.
Harrison and Tyler were elected as the Whig ticket in the 1840 election, the party that preceded the modern Republicans. Tyler himself, however, was a former Democrat. The unexpected new administration soon dismayed his own party’s members of Congress
Tyler had been added to the ticket mostly as an act of geographical and ideological balancing. He was a slaveholding Virginian, in contrast to war-hero Harrison who hailed from free-state Ohio. It would not be the issue of slavery that drove Tyler away from the Whigs, however. Instead, it was his repeated vetoes of bills to establish a national bank, then a centerpiece of the Whig’s agenda.
Instigated by the party’s true leader, then-Senator Henry Clay, it was an attempt to provoke Tyler’s resignation. On Sept. 11, 1841, every single member of the cabinet except the secretary of state walked into the president’s office one by one and tendered their resignations. It was a mass walk-out such as the executive branch hadn’t seen before or since.
When this ploy failed and Tyler refused to resign, two days later the Whig members of Congress gathered and officially expelled the president from the party. At the time, it was the caucus of congressional members that functioned like today’s national party conventions and committees, including the nomination of presidential tickets.
For the remainder of his term, Tyler served as America’s last independent president, unaffiliated with any political party. A new Cabinet was appointed, and the man known as “His Accidency” is today mostly remembered for overseeing the annexation of Texas.
Is President Trump still a Republican?
Donald Trump has at least one thing in common with Tyler: Both are former Democrats. Trump has, in fact, worn no less than four partisan affiliations over his lifetime.
Until 1987, the man who would become the 45th President of the United States identified as a Democrat. That year, when he first started to promote the possibility of running for president, he also switched his affiliation to Republican. He stayed a member of the GOP from then until 1999, when he briefly joined Ross Perot’s Reform Party and unsuccessfully sought its presidential nomination.
In 2001, he returned to the Democrats, where he stayed until 2009. He then switched back to the GOP, but in 2011 was again back to being a self-proclaimed independent. Only in 2012 did return to calling himself a Republican, as he started to lay the groundwork for being a national political figure on the populist right.
That is an impressive record of freely moving among partisan affiliations. For that reason, Trump was dogged by the accusation, and his own threat, to run third-party in the general election if he did not win the Republican nomination in 2016. It eventually proved to be a moot point, as Trump beat out a crowded field of competitors to win the nomination.
So while Trump is no Republican loyalist, he has nonetheless forged a strong alliance with a populist-Republican base. And he’s shifted the consensus on issues ranging from trade and foreign policy to one that is often at odds with the party establishment.
And grudges still loom large from how the party’s leaders tried to deny him the Republican nomination and who refused to stand by him when his general election campaign repeatedly appeared to implode.
A mutually beneficial divorce?
Trump leaving the Republicans might even be good for both. Freed to move to the center and reboot his image as a nonpartisan outsider and reformer, Trump may see his approval ratings improve from the current slide into the mid-thirties.
Republicans, meanwhile, would be freed from being dragged down by a president that is increasingly erratic and unpredictable. It’s possible that both Trump and the Republican Party would both be better-liked if they weren’t affiliated with each other.
Then again, it also might not end well for Trump. John Tyler, when stripped of any party support and facing a hostile Congress, was mostly ineffective and was denied any mechanism to run for re-election in 1844. Eventually, he became the only former president to renounce his U.S. citizenship, serving in the Confederate congress during the Civil War until his death in 1862.
If Trump were rebuked in such a fashion, would Republican members of Congress feel free to push forward with investigations and even impeachment? On the other hand, liberated from association with the White House’s inept messaging and policy pushes, might Congress avoid future political failures like the Obamacare repeal?
Blame for this fiasco has mostly landed with House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. Then again, they were often working around an unhelpful and counterproductive Trump.
GOP loyalists are now out of the White House. They’ve been replaced by non-partisan independents, including new chief of staff and former Homeland Security Secretary Gen. John F. Kelly, plus former Democrats from Trump’s orbit in New York City including Anthony Scaramucci and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
The only voice of traditional mainstream Republicans left in the administration is Vice President Mike Pence, the one person Trump can’t fire.
It’s unlikely that Trump will take the formal step of renouncing his status as a Republican. But the de facto reality may increasingly resemble the long-forgotten and ill-begotten presidency of John Tyler: A president without a party.
(Photo of President Donald Trump shaking hands in the Oval Office with new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly after he was sworn in on July 31, 2017, by Mike Theiler-Pool/Getty Images)