CRACKING REMORSE CODE IN TRUMPLAND
The most recent polls show President Trump’s approval ratings on the rise. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll of April 15, 2018, shows him with a 40% approval rating, four points higher than his 36 percent approval rating in January of this year. It’s also the highest he’s enjoyed in Post-ABC polling since his first 100 days in office.
This doesn’t square with the Blue Wave predicted by many mainstream journalists and pundits for November, when elections will determine the coloration of Congress for the next two years. Methinks these predictions by fellow journalists smack more of wishful thinking than of hard-core facts.
I bump up against this dichotomy on a daily basis, since I live in Europe, where Trump’s popularity is about at the level of bubonic plague. Why did you Americans vote for him?, people want to know. (They know I didn’t vote for him, but they figure I have insight about my fellow Americans who did.) Why do you continue to support him?, they wonder. And why do you maintain a crazy system that ignores the popular vote?, they ask.
An explanation of the idiosyncratic Electoral College is easy. The rest, not so much. I ask myself constantly — because I am asked constantly — why Trump supporters have remained fervent and loyal over more than 450 days of lies, insults, political travesties, and conduct unbecoming a world leader, to put it mildly? Why no buyer’s remorse? And why haven’t Republicans in Congress tried to temper the damage, which flies in the face of what were supposed to be core beliefs of their party? If Trump didn’t have the loyal support of his base, Congressional Republicans could defy him more readily. If Republicans in Congress were more willing to defy him, Trump wouldn’t be able to inflict nearly half the damage he has done . . . with no end in sight.
To put the 40% approval rating in context, the percentage of people who called themselves Republican was 25 percent in November 2017, according to a Gallup poll, while the percentage of voters identifying as Democratic was 30 percent. Another 42% declared themselves independent. Last month (March 2018) 23% of those polled by Gallup called themselves Republicans, 29% Democrats, and 45% independent.
So both parties have lost support (though the numbers are not statistically significant) while the uncommitted have gained. What this tells us is that the 40% who say they approve of Trump today include more than self-identifying Republicans. Who are they?
Let’s categorize about 20% of them as hard core. These include out and out racists, white supremacists, Ayn-Rand-quoting libertarians, and die-hard evangelicals, people who would happily vote for Putin — or the bubonic plague — over any Democrat.
Evangelicals are worth a nod. They are a largely American phenomenon. About ¼ of the US population describes itself as evangelical, the highest concentration in the world. They are not a solid block in terms of beliefs but generally they hold that the Bible should be interpreted literally and that salvation comes from being “born again.” Eight in ten self-identified evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, and he captured the majority of the “Christian” vote in general.
But what about the other 20%? They fall into five identifiable but overlapping groups, some of which Europeans can easily understand and others that are uniquely American and therefore hard for foreigners to grasp.
First are the one-issue voters, with the two trigger issues (“trigger” used advisedly) being abortions and guns. People who really REALLY believe that abortions are immoral, such as evangelicals, or that the right to bear arms is paramount among constitutional rights, such as NRA members, invariably vote Republican. For example, in the above-cited Post-ABC poll, more than 4 in 10 registered voters said it was extremely important that candidates share their views on gun issues.
With Trump, they got what they paid for with their vote: Gorsuch for anti-choice advocates, and silence on the Parkland, Las Vegas, and countless other mass killings for gun owners. Since Trump gave them what they wanted on the ONE issue they care most about, they will continue to support him unconditionally.
Neither of these hot button issues carries much traction in Italy, where I live. Abortions are legal here, and have been since 1978. (That doctors may decline to perform abortions for religious reasons, limiting access to the procedure, is another issue.) Gun laws for individuals are restrictive in ways unimaginable in the US, never mind that Italy is one of the world’s top arms traffickers.
Second are the beneficiaries of the soaring economy. Overconfident Democrats should remember Bill Clinton’s winning slogan in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.” The economy is doing very well on the surface — sales up, stock market up, employment up. Small businesses are happy and so are their employees. Ditto for many large corporations. They benefitted from the tax bill passed on December 2017, and so did numbers of middle Americans who saw their tax burden decline. These benefits may be short-term or downright illusory but peoples’ perceptions are that the economy is good, and Trump is president so he is taking the credit.
By contrast, the Italian economy is not doing as well as it should, or as well as some other countries in Europe. Governmental paralysis is partly to blame, hence, discontent with status quo politicians.
Third are US voters who have become tired of “politics as usual”. They despaired of Washington gridlock and saw Trump as a new alternative. He was something different, NOT the usual Beltway politician. Among this group are a significant — and in battleground states decisive –10% of Obama supports who voted for Trump in 2016. Yes, that’s right. Ten percent of Obama voters in 2012 voted for his philosophical opposite in 2016. Whatever Trump has or has not done for this group, which is preponderantly white, male, and blue-collar, his behavior in office is everything but “politics as usual”. So in that way he has delivered on the promise made to his voters and they are happy. They don’t mind that he calls poor countries sh*tholes because they might do the same. They don’t care about his dalliances with porn stars because they might do the same. They aren’t bothered by his lack of knowledge of legislative procedure, immigration policy, international diplomacy, or constitutional rights because they don’t know these things either, and who cares, really, as long as I have a paycheck. And let’s keep those furriners out while we are at it.
Italians can relate to this group directly because Italy just did something similar in its national elections in March of this year. The two political parties with the greatest number of voters were the Five Star Movement and the Northern League. The Five Star Movement didn’t exist as a political party 10 years ago, and began as a comedian’s protest against “politics as usual”. It snowballed into a serious political force fueled by voters who were tired of the corruption and posturing in Rome. The Northern League is less than 30 years old and also began as a protest by voters in northern Italy against the south, but has become a nationalist, populist, anti-immigration party. Both movements are seemingly the antithesis of politics as usual, and their newness is why many people voted for them.
A codicil to this category: with two huge exceptions (Fox News and Sinclair Broadcasting), the so-called mainstream media (MSM) are not fans of Donald Trump. He has attacked them time and time again in ways that they perceive as threatening to democratic (small “d”) process, and he is so truth-challenged that dispassionate, coherent reportage is often impossible. For these reasons and a variety of others, articles that appear in the MSM may describe Trump supporters as “racist” or “uneducated” or “poor white trash” when in fact, in aggregate, Trump supporters are more educated and wealthier than the electorate as a whole. The upshot is that some voters who supported Trump in 2016 resent being classified as ignorant or stupid and dig in all the more obstinately with support for their president, whom they see as being just as beleaguered and mislabeled by the MSM as they are. These are people who find Saturday Night Live offensive rather than amusing.
A fourth group of voters opted for Trump simply because they couldn’t stand Hillary Clinton. These were mostly men, but not entirely: 52% of white women voted for Trump over Clinton. Plus, the Obama voters who cast their vote for Trump included many supporters of Bernie Saunders in the Democratic primaries; they were so bitter about the party’s choice that they refused to vote for her and voted for the Republican instead. The quintessential baby-bath water conundrum.
A fifth category of supporters draws from the other four, less dogmatically: they are the folks who claim Trump has delivered on or is trying to deliver on things I care about, such as improving the economy, appointing conservative judges, renegotiating trade deals, reforming immigration or healthcare, reducing bureaucracy, lowering my taxes. For this fluctuating pool of voters, Trump’s inconsistencies about Russia or the TPP or North Korea are unimportant as long as he appears to have their interests at heart. For this group, as for the mono-issue folks, Trump’s personal qualities are unimportant; the only thing that counts is what he delivers to ME.
None of these five groups has reason to feel betrayed by their vote for Trump, at least not in the short term. All of which makes me wonder about the supposed Blue Wave that is supposed to wash over the country in November. I don’t see it in Republicans who have circled the wagons and are holding firm (or bailing out, like Paul Ryan). I don’t see it in the Democratic Party, which has yet to decide whether to hew to the center or veer to the left. The Bernie Brigade wants to promulgate a “purist” message hanging decidedly left; that has resonance for minorities and the young, but minorities and the young do not vote in the same numbers as old white people. To crack the remorse code, you need to reach independents and Trump-leaning ambivalents, white and of a certain age. Otherwise the Blue Wave is going to be a huge washout.