Trump Is Entering a Dangerous Phase of His Presidency

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The possible existence of recordings of Donald Trump using racial slurs is giving rise to another round of speculation about whether anything can dent his popularity. 

As Brian Beutler reminds us, we already have plenty of examples of damage to Trump’s approval from wildly inappropriate comments. There are real political effects if the president’s rating slips from the current level of about 42 percent to his low of about 37 percent, even if that turns out to be a real floor.

But until this point of his presidency, Trump always had one advantage: Strong incentives for party leaders, including those in Congress, to stick with him. But he’s about to enter a dangerous period when those incentives won’t be around to help him.

During election campaigns, presidential popularity is vital for all same-party politicians, who tend to be lifted -- or sunk -- by partisan tides. Those relationships are so strong there’s an incentive against same-party politicians attacking even an unpopular president (or presidential candidate).

So, Republican politicians had good reason to stick with Trump from the time he was nominated until Election Day in 2016. The same is true now during the run-up to the midterm elections. The more Trump is unpopular, the more Republican voters will stay home and swing voters will tend to support Democrats to punish him, regardless of whether the local Republicans have criticized Trump. That’s built in. What makes it worse with Trump is that he’s more than capable of going on the attack against any Republican who criticizes him, which would hurt that politician in November. Most presidents wouldn’t do that because they recognize their self-interest in supporting same-party politicians who sometimes criticize them, but Trump is too thin-skinned for that. 

That immediate electoral incentive wasn’t as strong during the first year of his presidency. But Trump had other things going for him during that period. There’s a natural tendency for everyone, and particularly same-party politicians, to give a newly elected president a chance. Trump squandered a lot of that, but it was still operating, especially for Republicans, at some level. There’s also the much-discussed drive of Republicans in Congress to pass bills they liked, especially the tax cut; they almost certainly believed that criticizing Trump would make enacting legislation harder. And Trump also benefited last year from the belief that he had a secret ability to defy the polls and the pundits. Such magic is never real, but it’s normal for politicians from both parties to believe in it after every electoral victory, especially unexpected ones.

All of those incentives, except the one having to do with passing legislation, are in effect right now. 

But after Nov. 6, they all could be gone, and there’s no real Republican legislative agenda anyway. But if Republicans lose their House majority they will have to play defense for the next two years, and that takes far less coordination and therefore less of a reason to prop up the president. Any benefit of the doubt enjoyed by a new president will be gone. And so, if Republicans do badly, most or all of any remaining belief in Trump’s magic will be gone. 

Republicans in Congress won’t automatically turn against Trump after the election. After all, not all of politics is incentives. Besides, the absence of enticements to support the president isn’t the same as the presence of incentives to oppose him. However, if there is some new Trump outrage -- and those seem guaranteed on a weekly basis -- there just won’t be the same strong reasons for Republicans to stick with him if they otherwise would be inclined not to.

It’s hard to draw historical parallels because, at least in the modern era, we’ve never had a president who had such a weak professional reputation nor one who repeatedly violated all standards of proper behavior. But for what it’s worth, many Democrats did break more sharply with Jimmy Carter in 1979 than they had during his first two years in office, and various Democrats spent the year considering a nomination challenge, with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and California Governor Jerry Brown jumping in the race.

Again, that doesn’t guarantee that more prominent Republicans will oppose Trump after Election Day. But we know that for several months following Nov. 6, the incentive structure for elite Republican support for Trump, including in Congress, will be unusually weak. He’s about to enter a very dangerous period -- and he doesn’t seem prepared for it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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