(PPFA’s contractual obligation to look back at Trump’s first hundred days…)
In 1968, Richard Nixon barely eclipsed 300 electoral votes in his victory over Hubert Humphrey. Nixon’s popular vote share fell well short of 50 percent. The sizable, defeated left spent the next four years protesting and raising hell in its quest to topple the new regime, an administration they regularly described as authoritarian. The media often joined in. The movement was frequently loud, sometimes articulate, and always bolstered by its convictions.
After four years of that, President Nixon won an unprecedented 49 states in his re-election triumph.
A decade later, Ronald Reagan mired in a rough start to his presidency. In 1982, his second year in office, he averaged a 43 percent approval rating that bottomed out at 35 percent at the start of the new year. People thought the actor couldn’t handle the job. The sluggish economy was too big for him. So was the Cold War. He was going to be a failed, one-term president.
Then, he became the second man to win 49 states and ranks among the most popular presidents of all time.
My last political post finished by asserting Trump could still rebound from his uneven start. I know this because we’ve been here before. Well, maybe not exactly here. It’s safe to say President Trump lacks a totally congruent precedent. Still, we not too long ago had unpopular presidents who not only rebounded, but they ultimately achieved historic victories.
Conventional wisdom says that Nixon convincingly won re-election thanks to his “silent majority.” The silent majority could also be described as “Middle America,” a term that doesn’t just refer to its geography — the states between the elitist coasts — but also to their middling political action. Middle Americans did not take to the streets, but they weren’t apathetic, either. They took the middle road. They voted.
I think too many on the left overconfidently evaluate President Trump as an incompetent, inarticulate authoritarian who could never dupe enough people into electing him again. Let’s not forget, however, that the general consensuses thought he couldn’t survive the 2015 political season, then thought he couldn’t win the nomination, then thought he couldn’t win the presidency. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
The confident left risks dismissing the silent majority (or, at least, the silent plurality). That’s not to say that President Trump’s supporters are literally silent; if they survived your social media weeding, you’ll quickly see their range of emotion. (You can also spend ten minutes on some Reddit message boards.) It is to say, however, that despite their absence around airports, the streets of Washington, and liberal dinner tables, they are a political force. I’ve seen many Democrats claim that Trump is off to a disastrous, indefensible start. Between his cabinet picks, travel
bans restrictions, allegations of a wiretap(p), and myriad challenges with the English language, American history, and the truth, his detractors ask their curated Facebook feeds how anyone can defend him.
Trump, however, seems to have alienated few in his base, and from this base he can eventually launch a counteroffensive.
Before we focus in on those supporters, let’s first take stock of his national support. FiveThirtyEight does a good job compiling Trump’s approval rating across the polls. Here’s what they have since his inauguration (vertical lines represent months):
That looks bad, but keep in mind that Trump barely won 46 percent of the country in the election, so he’s only a few points south of that with 41 months to go before November 2020. Furthermore, though national disapproval is 52 percent, remember that 54 percent of the country voted against him in 2016, but he still won. All dissenters will not align behind the Democratic challenger.
Meanwhile, he still enjoys 80 to 90 percent support among Republicans. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that only two percent of Trump supporters regretted their vote. The same supporters who got him elected really haven’t gone anywhere.
Instead, around their feet are two heel-displaced mounds of dirt. Part of that might stem from people’s natural reluctance to admit they were wrong so soon after their ballot helped secure a monumental upset, but most of it is due to them thinking he’s actually doing the best job he can in the face of obstinate Democrats, disorganized Republicans, and biased newsrooms.
Some liberals must wonder how that’s possible. I urge them to pay attention. Trump’s voters haven’t budged because, for all his shortcomings and missteps, he’s steadily working toward trying to fulfill his campaign promises. Republicans voted for such efforts. (At the very least, they’d be quick to tell you, it sure beats what Hillary Clinton would have tried to do.)
It’s his Republicanism, however unrefined, that infuriates many Democrats, so it makes sense that Republicans haven’t backed off. For examples, let’s take a look at seven controversial decisions of his first hundred days:
- His cabinet picks
- Democratic perspective: He picked someone who’s against public schools to head the Department of Education, someone who wanted to get rid of the Department of Energy (if he could remember what it was — oops!) to head the Department of Energy, someone who worked against the EPA to head the EPA, and someone whose only qualification for leading the Department of Housing and Urban Development was that he grew up in an urban area. Could the President be any more irresponsible with his executive branch?
- Republican perspective: These picks make all the sense in the world. We have too many executive departments. The cabinet has swelled since the original four (the secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense/War, and the Attorney General), and it must be drained. By appointing these anti-department department heads he ensures no unnecessary expenditures. The President might even be able to scale back the departments enough to consolidate them into fewer agencies, saving everyone a lot of money. Finally someone is protecting us from the bloated bureaucracy that is the executive branch.
- His original budget blueprint
- Democratic perspective: He’s only boosting defense spending, taking from the most vulnerable among us to do it. As expected, he’s helping his wealthy friends by writing the budget on the backs of the working class, including the people who elected him.
- Republican perspective: He’s cutting wasteful programs to save Americans tax dollars while bolstering a crumbling Defense Department ignored too long by his predecessor. Finally we have a president protecting our families from terrorism and our paychecks from the federal government.
- The beginning of the wall and ramped up ICE round-ups.
- Democratic perspective: What could be more unAmerican than erecting walls when we should be building bridges, and how can anyone justify ripping people from their homes?
- Republican perspective: How could anyone be opposed to keeping out illegal immigrants and sending back the mooching illegal immigrants already here, particularly if they have a violent record? Finally we have a president protecting us from these destructive interlopers.
- The Neil Gorsuch appointment
- Democratic perspective: MERRICK GARLAND! THE CONSTITUTION! RUSSIA!
- Republican perspective: Whatever.
- Repealing and replacing Obamacare
- Democratic perspective: More Americans than ever have health insurance. Health care has never been more affordable for our poorest citizens. Why don’t richer Americans have more empathy for the poorest ones? Small changes can fix the problems of the ACA, but it’s still conceptually sound. Who would want to throw out a system that has helped so many?
- Republican perspective: Obamacare is a disaster falling apart before our eyes, and it’s about to enter a death spiral. We must act now before it’s too late. The federal government should remove itself from the health care business. Finally we have a president protecting us from a meddling government.
- The Syria strike
- Democratic perspective: Though many acknowledge Assad’s brutality, this President cannot be trusted to prosecute this response. At the very least he should seek Congressional input and approval. Moreover, his refusal to take in refugees seems incongruous to his supposed empathy regarding suffering Syrian children.
- Republican perspective: He acted quickly, decisively, and strongly, and he did it while putting no Americans in harm’s way, which allowing in an Islamic terrorist masquerading as a refugee would do. He also sent a message: America is back. Finally we have a president who will defend red lines.
- The travel ban
- Democrats: He’s an authoritarian madman!
- Republicans: He’s trying to keep us safe!
In sum, each of these decisions by the President drove liberals crazy, but none gave Republicans any reason to withdraw their support. Even the most controversial act — the travel ban — split America down the middle. CBS found 45 percent of Americans supported it — a number propped up by 85 percent of Republicans — which nearly equaled the 46 percent Trump pulled in November’s election. Reuters gauged even higher overall support, with more approving than disapproving: 48 to 41 percent. In other words, despite peak liberal hysteria, Trump’s supporters remained unfazed.
For that reason, Trump’s 35 to 40 percent floor is holding, and a good week or two — perhaps catalyzed by yesterday’s House health care vote — could send it climbing back into the mid-to-high 40s, where he would have a good shot at re-election. The ascent may have already begun; his 42.4 percent average now is in itself up nearly three points from a 39.8 nadir a month ago.
Nonetheless, despite an alive and kicking Trump Administration, there is an opportunity here for Democrats. If they really want to stand up to Trump, they need to use the 2018 midterms to move into the majority in either or both chambers of Congress.
It won’t be easy. The Republicans’ strong grip on the House (238-193) combined with the plummeting number of swing seats makes that an arduous uphill climb for Democrats. Meanwhile, the available seats in the 2018 Senate race (currently 52-48 in favor of Republicans) reveal an almost impossible flip for Democrats: 25 Senators who caucus as Democrats are up for re-election compared to only 9 Republicans, most of whom are safe in dark red states. With so many disparate states and districts across the country, both chambers should stay safely red.
That being said, there is a glaring weakness for the GOP, and that’s the erratic, golden-haired head of their party. If Republicans work alongside Trump for the next two years, they will be tied to him politically. If he’s still this unpopular in two years, Republican Congressmen and women will be right down there with him. We’ve seen it before with President Bush in 2006 (when the Democrats took Congress) and President Obama in 2010 (when Republicans returned the favor); one man becomes the face of an entire party. If the 2018 midterms become a referendum on Trump, Republicans must worry about putting all their enormous elephant eggs into the basket of an historically unpopular and embarrassing president.
Thus, while Trump can still achieve a Nixonian or Reaganesque turn of momentum, he’s also in position to drag the entire Republican Party down with him. The relationship between Trump and Congressional Republicans is something to keep an eye on between now and November 2018.
Of course, if Democrats want to maximize their chances at seizing the house, they must display a more appealing alternative vision. But that’s for next time. See you then.