The political verdict seems out on Trump’s current political future.
His supporters have won four special congressional elections. Yet, more recently, Republicans lost more local and state offices. Pundits argue about the degree to which these surrogate campaigns are referenda on Trump’s future.
Trump still polls between 39 percent and 42 percent approval, occasionally higher in supposed outlier surveys. Yet most concede that such polls did not in the past, and do not in the present, fully account for the “Trump Embarrassment Factor.” That is the strange phenomenon of a sizable minority of Trump voters — including Democrats and independents — proving reluctant to express support even to anonymous pollsters. Ask independent or moderate Republican voters whether they really voted for Trump: If they hesitate for more than three seconds before they answer, they probably did.
Registering dissatisfaction with Trump, the person, is also not the same as stating a preference for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Kamala Harris in a two-way presidential poll. Trump may be off the ballot in 2018, but in 2020 he will be opposed one-on-one by a real, progressive candidate.
Trump’s fate in the 2018 midterms — aside from the fact that first-term presidents always seem to lose congressional seats after about two years of exposure — and his reelection in 2020 supposedly hinge on whether Trump’s popular message trumps the unpopular messenger (more on that below).
If the economy grows at over 3 percent or even more from the last quarter of 2017 to November 2018, if unemployment dips below 4 percent, if the stock market holds at its record levels, if business, consumer, and corporate confidence keeps soaring, if illegal immigration continues to plummet, if construction and manufacturing stay on the upswing, if Trump’s national-security team brings a new deterrence to foreign policy without a war with North Korea or Iran, and if energy production reaches ever-record levels, then voters will put up with a lot of Trump’s downsides.
And that “lot” supposedly can include mercurial firings, continuous tweeting that results about every three weeks in a detour spat with some obnoxious nonentity, some ungracious comment about a rival, or an indiscretion that is perceived to be another embarrassing straw on Trump’s sagging camel’s back.
Or Trump’s message may overshadow the hemorrhaging from Robert Mueller’s leaky “collusion” charges. (The Javert investigation unfortunately will end only when the police are policed and Congress learns exactly what Mueller was or was not doing during his tenure in the Obama administration when the Clintons, with assumed exemption, finessed special-favor deals with foreign interests, including and especially Russian uranium concerns, and exactly what the complex relationships were between the self-righteous James Comey, the FBI and intelligence communities, the FISA courts, the unmasking and leaking of classified intercepts of private-citizen communications, and the Steele smear dossier.)
Besides tensions between the Trump record and the Trump persona, what other factors will play out in the next two critical elections to decide Trump’s fate?
A lot depends on whether the Democratic party continues down its suicidal path of income redistribution and identity politics (embracing illegal immigration, sanctuary cities, Black Lives Matter, the Colin Kaepernick take-a-knee movement, the Antifa alliance, the new iconoclasm, and other polarizing issues that turn off two out of three Americans). Assassination chic — hanging, dismembering, blowing up, decapitating, or stabbing Trump — got old quickly. In their Pavlovian hatred of Trump, mainstream reporters have exposed their bias and nearly emasculated themselves as progressive political allies of the Democrats.
Trump conceivably could be the first president to be elected twice without winning the popular vote. For now, he has overturned the conventional wisdom about the new demography. His die-hard opponents live in states that he probably would never have won anyway; his fervent supporters live in swing states where their votes count more.
So far, Trump’s base seems as firm as his opponents’ base. Before 2016, the conventional wisdom was that Republican presidential candidates (who had not won 51 percent of the popular vote since 1988) were increasingly doomed, given that they supposedly had lost for good old battleground states such as Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, while they were fading in purple Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina.
The conservative message purportedly did not resonate with the new demography-is-destiny voters and supposedly turned off the old working classes as being nothing more than a rich man’s agenda. But while Democrats boasted about turning even more red states blue, Trump, termite-like, stealthily ate away the very foundations of the Democratic party. Its preachy environmentalism, ever-larger government, “I got mine” elitist snobbery, static economic growth, and polarizing identity politics fueled by supposed “white privilege” (shrilly blasted by those who enjoyed it, against those who did not) turned off the irredeemable and deplorable clingers.
The spate of current sexual-harassment scandals should have weakened Trump, given the crude Access Hollywood sloppy talk and the 2016 campaign accusations. But, more likely, the wedge issue has been somewhat nullified by the exposure of a virtual army of sexual predators among Hollywood’s progressives, Washington’s mainstream liberal reporters, and prominent politicians. And the tsunami of scandals has perhaps also weakened the entire narrative of progressives as feminist defenders in the so-called Republican war on women.
Never Trump predictions — Trump would govern as a squishy liberal, or appoint David Souter–like justices, or tank the economy, or discredit conservative ideology — have so far not panned out, at least if one follows what Trump has done rather than what he has said.
The Republican Never Trump movement is divided, because it is all but impossible to offer a coherent alternative to Trump’s conservative agenda, which is 90 percent doctrinaire. Never Trump predictions — Trump would govern as a squishy liberal, or appoint David Souter–like justices, or tank the economy, or discredit conservative ideology — have so far not panned out, at least if one follows what Trump has done rather than what he has said. In ironic fashion, Trump has learned politics more rapidly than his politically seasoned critics have learned to critique Trump. At year’s end, comparing careers, Trump could reasonably claim that he is better off than his worst critics.
Lastly, there are always the unplanned and unknown events that warp elections— an optional war that turns ugly, a 2008-like financial meltdown, some sort of scandal or indictment, or abject failure to pass either Obamacare repeal or tax reform.
But for now, the odds are more likely that in 2018 the economy will continue on a historic upswing rather than fall into a recession. Before Trump, we were told that unemployment could not in peacetime dip below 4 percent, that 3 percent annual GDP growth was a relic of a bygone age, and that the Dow Jones Industrial Average could not much exceed 20,000. That may all be discredited wisdom in 2018, and Trump may well finally get credit for the near-historic upsurge.
One final note: Mystery still surrounds the outlier Trump. Most concur that the upside of his message counters the downside of his personality. Supporters supposedly agree that his petty repartee and insistence on hammering back at even the most pathetic journalist or inane jock are both time wasted and proof of unfortunate narcissism and self-absorption. “If only Trump would not tweet” or “Can’t he just shut up for a while?” is the conventional wisdom among his reluctant supporters.
But is the above orthodox diagnosis quite right?
Voters may say that they find Trump puerile and repellent while in private enjoying that he is as petty as they are and hits back at those who long ago needed a smack. That disconnect could explain why polls are now less relevant and why those who voted for Trump can fudge and mislead about their politics more than Trump himself does. Trump’s take-no-prisoners style may serve some people’s vicarious need to push back against the progressive trajectory of the country, in a way that voting for a Cruz or a Rubio in the primary did not.
We pundits talk about being “presidential” and “elevating the office” over the lowest common denominator of the mob. Perhaps. But what if after $20 trillion in debt, unwon wars in the Middle East, the 2008 meltdown, nuclear missiles 20 minutes from Portland and San Diego, and a country without borders and torn apart by race, the proverbial people do not want an aspirational president who leads only to more such lofty aspirations? What if they instead prefer someone who is in some sense unpresidential or at least anti-presidential, if being status quo “presidential” got us where we are? Perhaps half the country wondered whether Bill Clinton’s alleged assaults or George H. W. Bush’s sneaky photo-gropes were part of being presidential and post-presidential? Or they asked whether Washington was any less immoral because it frequents the Four Seasons rather than the Motel Six? Stylistically or politically, what exactly would acting unpresidential these days consist of — politicizing the IRS, allowing the VA to decay, surveilling, unmasking, and leaking communications of U.S. citizens, or inviting into the White House misogynistic and profane rappers whose lyrics are about hating the police?
If that analysis is even partly true, it may be that it was not just Trump’s conservative populist message but also Trump himself, the unique populist loudmouth messenger, who won the Electoral College. Trump prevailed not only because he appealed to the concerns of flyover country, but also because he voiced these concerns in a way that no other Republican would have.
In other words, the very manner in which Trump agonizes our elite is also precisely what may still energize half the country — the half that lives supposedly nowhere but in electoral terms is very much somewhere.