With polling showing President Donald Trump’s approval rating significantly below his disapproval rating in three key states, he will have his work cut out as he starts his bid for re-election.
Business as usual, then. The Divided States of America is gearing up to slug it out again and the main – one’s tempted to say only – issue is the President who personifies this polarisation. His supporters love him for what he is; his opponents loathe him for what he is.
Trump has no interest in being a unifier: he knows that, in a less-polarised society, a divisive candidate like him would have little appeal. It therefore made perfect sense for him to evoke 2016. First, why change a winning formula? Second, despite being hyped as the re-election campaign launch, the Orlando event was really just another rally. As the New York Times pointed out, Trump has been running for re-election since the day he took office. And the core campaign strategy – Let Trump be Trump – was locked in a long time ago.
In 2016, there was a widespread assumption that Trump couldn’t win. When that proved misplaced, it was replaced by a widespread assumption that, once in the White House, Trump would be transformed into a responsible adult who understood that governing is serious business. Failing that, he’d surround himself with responsible, experienced adults and leave them to it.
For a while, he did surround himself with responsible adults, or at least generals who are assumed to be men of substance, although there’s an element of wishful thinking underpinning that view. But, over time, the minders were pushed or drifted away and the Trump Administration came to resemble the Trump Organisation: a private family business with an autocratic and capricious patriarch.
Again, the process is as predictable as the reasons for it are obvious. Trump believes he’s a genius, the smartest person in any room, whose successes, including becoming president despite not being a politician, were achieved by following his instincts rather than “expert” advice or conventional wisdom.
His ego was always going to make him resistant to toeing lines drawn by those he considered his intellectual inferiors, creatures of orthodoxy and narrow ambition who had advanced their careers by following orders and keeping their noses clean. In Trump’s amoral universe, the mark of a man or woman is what they’ve got away with.
The Trump base regards the responsible adults of metropolitan opinion as the problem, not the solution; an aloof, out-of-touch elite who encouraged the unwelcome socio-cultural and economic changes that must be reversed in order to Make America Great Again. The last thing the base wants is a non-executive chairman of the board passively enabling the bureaucracy’s decades-old agenda. It wants Trump Untrammelled.
So, the gaudy spectacle rolls on, to markedly mixed reviews. Since the Orlando rally, Trump has threatened to obliterate Iran, and he supposedly cancelled air strikes at the last minute after discovering that bombs and missiles kill people. As he obviously doesn’t know what “obliterate” means, here are a few synonyms: annihilate, exterminate, liquidate, wipe off the face of the Earth.
A celebrated columnist and author has become the 16th woman to accuse Trump of sexual misconduct, alleging an encounter in a department-store changing room with a distinct echo of his “grab ’em by the pussy” boast. Within hours of Trump declaring he had never met E Jean Carroll in his life, the media produced a photo of them socialising several years before the alleged assault took place.
It verges on being an established fact that nothing Trump does as president, no matter how clownish or wrong-headed, and nothing that’s revealed about his personal conduct and business career, no matter how sleazy, will cause his supporters to question their blind faith. A corollary is that via a process of habituation – ceasing to respond to a stimulus that has been repeated over and over – non-supporters are becoming inured to Trump’s behaviour, to the point of ceasing to regard it as aberrant.
However, recent polls suggest anti-Trumpers are as committed to their point of view as pro-Trumpers – and there are more of them.
As reported by Vox, Morning Consult polling shows Trump’s approval rating significantly below his disapproval rating in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the states that effectively decided the outcome in 2016, and in the bellwether state of Ohio. In crucial Florida, which can’t make up its mind whether it approves or disapproves, Trump is well behind the best-known Democratic hopefuls, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Vanity Fair put it, rather callously, thus: “Like Miami in the year 2050, Trump’s polling is decidedly underwater.”
The state of the economy is another indicator that detestation of Trump is as intense and potent as his supporters’ adoration. According to John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University who has done work benchmarking presidential approval to economic indicators, “Trump’s poll numbers are probably 20 points below where a president would typically be with consumer sentiment as high as it is now.”
They say generals always fight the last war. The Trump campaign has no choice but to let Trump be Trump, because he won’t have it any other way. Besides, what’s Plan B? The question is: come November 2020, will four years’ exposure to Trump have swelled the ranks and hardened the conviction of those who adore him or those who loathe him? As they also say, your greatest strength can become your greatest weakness.
This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.