Events Matter More Than Trump’s Strongest Supporters

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- We really have to discuss the effects of events on presidencies.

Politico’s Annie Karni reports that what President Donald Trump’s White House learned from his wildly inappropriate comments after Charlottesville last year was that nothing matters — things that were thought to be toxic to a presidency are not, at least not for this president. 

But in some ways, the experience of Charlottesville, as well as his ability to recover from any short-term crisis, has been empowering for Trump and his allies. Three former aides said the takeaway from Charlottesville is the nihilistic notion that nothing matters except for how things play.

“The lesson of the Trump presidency is that no short-term crisis matters long term,” said one former White House official who worked in the administration last year during the racial crisis.

On one hand, the fact that some media frenzies have little or no long-term effects is important and accurate, and some presidents go four or even eight years without learning not to overreact to whatever minor flap people are obsessed with at the moment. One of Barack Obama’s enormous strengths as a politician was that he was aware of that early on, and while his administration didn’t always act accordingly, overall it was a real plus for him.

But, no, it’s certainly not true that “nothing matters.” 

Make that: Doug Jones, Conor Lamb, blowout Democratic wins in off-year elections in 2017, quite a few down-ballot special elections that have flipped seats to Democrats, historically low approval ratings over the course of his presidency, generic ballot questions, and seat-by-seat analysis all pointing to a very bad Election Day for Republicans in November. 

Yes, Trump has retained his strongest supporters. So did Richard Nixon well into 1973; so did Jimmy Carter in 1978, Ronald Reagan in 1982, Bill Clinton in 1994, George W. Bush in 2006 and Obama in 2010, all just before brutal midterm results for their parties. The big difference is that all of those examples of disastrous midterms came during hard economic times of one kind or another. Trump is maintaining weak approval ratings despite relative peace and prosperity. Based on that, one might expect him to have approval ratings similar to George H.W. Bush or John F. Kennedy at this stage of their presidencies. That he’s not even close to them strongly suggests that Trump’s conduct in office is having dramatic negative effects on his popularity.

It also suggests something that we can’t yet prove: that Trump has permanently alienated half or more of the electorate. We’ve never had a president do that before. But Trump has never reached 50 percent approval, and it’s quite possible he can’t. My guess is that the only previous president to achieve that dubious distinction was Nixon in his final nine months or so. But it’s not hard to imagine the others whose approval slumped to around 25 percent (which is well below where Trump has been) recovering had they had more time, and peace and prosperity had broken out. 

Determining which of Trump’s various scandals and outrageous comments and actions are responsible for his unpopularity would be a difficult task indeed, and it’s almost certainly the case that some things blown out of proportion really didn’t matter in the long run. But people trying to figure out the effects of anything on Trump’s popularity would be smart to entirely ignore his strongest supporters (and strongest opponents), because that’s not where changes in any president’s popularity will be found. And yes, losing popularity matters, even if a president retains those strongest supporters. 

1.  Andrew Rudalevige at the Monkey Cage on Brett Kavanaugh and what the White House staff secretary does

2. Josh Barro on why Trump-era deregulation may not be all it seems to be.

3. See also: Politico’s Sarah Karlin-Smith, Sarah Owermohle and Andrew Restuccia on drug prices

4. David Leonhardt on a Trump slump for wages. Certainly worth noting, although (as Leonhardt does say) the GDP numbers are OK and the employment numbers are excellent. 

5. Jared Bernstein on the jobs report.

6. Amy Walter at the Cook Political Report on August seat ratings and November results.

7. Perry Bacon Jr. on the Tennessee primaries and why there are so few Republican women in office.

8. And Harry Enten on why Ted Cruz is still favored for re-election. Agree, but the big news is that one even has to make that case. 

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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