President Trump has had an amazing month.
It looks as though he’s about to pass his tax-reform plan, complete with repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate. He announced earlier this month that the official policy of the United States would be to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and stated that we would move our embassy there. He has appointed twelve circuit-court judges so far, more than any other president ever in the first year of an administration. The economy continues to gain momentum, with Q3 growth estimated at nearly 4 percent and the stock market reaching record highs. ISIS seems to be in its death throes. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign looks more and more like an empty farce.
Yet according to RealClearPolitics, Trump’s current approval rating is 38 percent, Congress’s job approval stands at 14 percent, and Democrats have an eleven-point advantage on the generic Congressional ballot. Republicans just lost a Senate seat in Alabama, were swept in Virginia, and have lost six state-level seats in races from New Hampshire to Oklahoma.
Many Republicans will contend that the polls don’t matter, and we should just be grateful that President Trump has accomplished so much. He’s faced down the barrage of media scrutiny, and while he’s stepped on landmines regularly, that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his agenda effectively. Must we truly focus on Trump’s failure to win Americans to his side?
Yes we must. In fact, we ought to focus even more heavily on the need for Trump to win Americans over if we hope for more conservative victories. That’s because Trump’s lack of popularity carries a severe risk that he will poison the well. Personal unpopularity can cripple an agenda; Trump’s awful poll numbers could easily translate into hatred for the otherwise-excellent policy he espouses.
Take, for example, tax reform.
The Republican tax-reform package lowers rates for virtually all Americans. The only Americans who would see significant tax increases are high-income earners from blue states with high tax rates. As Guy Benson points out, “taxpayers in every single income quintile, including the middle three, will see their after-tax incomes rise, due to the plan’s cuts — both immediately and in the medium-term.” Yet somehow, the bill has just a 26 percent approval rating, and 50 percent of Americans wrongly believe that taxes will rise once it’s implemented.
There are two reasons so many Americans are misinformed about the substance of the bill. The first is obvious: The media’s biased coverage, including the ludicrous assertion that the bill somehow redistributes wealth from the bottom to the top, has perverted the truth. The second is less obvious, but no less true: Trump’s personal unpopularity and the general lack of trust Americans have in him mean that they won’t take his word for it, even when he’s telling the truth. Perhaps none of this means anything in the long run — perhaps Americans will see the additional money in their tax refunds and thank Trump no matter what they think of the plan now. Or perhaps they’ll continue to buy the media line that any economic distress to come is a direct result of the bill.
Precisely because Trump’s agenda has been so shockingly conservative, conservatives should have an intense interest in boosting his approval ratings. Herbert Hoover’s economic policy wasn’t conservative, but it was perceived as such by the American people, and Hoover’s devastating unpopularity crippled the conservative agenda for a full generation. Trump’s policies are largely conservative, and his unpopularity could do the same.
So yes, conservatives should celebrate Trump’s successes. But then we should call for Trump to act in ways that generate goodwill with Americans as a whole. If the conservative agenda is now lashed to Trump personally, it’s imperative that Trump act as a cork rather than an anchor.