Trump’s historic unpopularity is a big story
A new Gallup poll has some folks excitedly tweeting that President Donald Trump’s re-election chances are similar to those of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton before him — both of whom, you may recall, did get re-elected — but the more important story is what Gallup concludes about the depths of Trump’s historic unpopularity.
The poll finds that a solid majority — 59 per cent — of Americans say Trump does not deserve to be re-elected, versus only 37 per cent who say he does. But Gallup’s headline blares: “Trump’s Re-elect Figures Similar to Those of Obama, Clinton.” And it’s true, as Gallup says, that these numbers are “essentially identical” to those of Clinton and Obama “at the time of the 1994 and 2010 midterm elections, respectively”.
But that comparison takes the current moment, which comes a little more than six months before the 2018 midterm elections, and compares it with the Obama and Clinton polling at about the time of Election Day. And, as Gallup notes, those numbers for Obama and Clinton led to truly huge midterm losses:
“Clinton and Obama both saw their party suffer huge losses in their first midterm elections, when fewer than four in ten voters thought they deserved re-election. In 1994, Democrats lost 53 seats in the House, and in 2010, they lost 63 seats.”
If we take these Gallup numbers seriously, then if Trump is still hovering at such a low reelection number this autumn, then we may see Republicans sustain large midterm losses this time around — although for various structural reasons, such as gerrymandering, they might not be as large. As Nate Silver has suggested, Trump’s approval ratings appear to be remarkably steady through all kinds of news events, suggesting he may well still be mired in similar doldrums this autumn.
What is more, as Gallup reminds us, if you look at Trump’s approval ratings, as opposed to the re-elect numbers, those have steadily been worse than those of his recent predecessors — by sizeable margins, in fact. So not only is Trump on track to face large midterm losses — he is also substantially less popular than those predecessors.
It is just way too early to say whether Trump is likely to get re-elected, as Jonathan Bernstein explains on bloomberg.com. He could very well rise in popularity; or he might not; or he could fall farther. But the depth of Trump’s unpopularity is an important story beyond what it says about Trump’s political fortunes.
Because Trump has blown through so many norms, the question of whether the American public is rejecting him is a momentous one. Trump has embraced overt racism, xenophobia and authoritarianism, in the form of regular racial provocations, assaults on our institutions and the rule of law, and an unprecedented level of self-dealing that basically constitutes a big middle finger to the country. He has married all this to orthodox GOP economic priorities — indeed, as Brian Beutler says on crooked.com, the three pillars of Trump-era conservatism are self-enriching plutocracy, racism and authoritarianism.
If that is so, then it is notable that majorities are rejecting all of those things. Obamacare repeal crashed and burnt. The tax law passed, but it remains deeply unpopular. Majorities disapproved of Trump’s response to white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Majorities sided with the “dreamers” against Trump — although in fairness the polling is mixed on the thinly veiled Muslim ban. Big majorities support special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of both potential collusion with Russia, dismissing Trump’s claims of a “witch-hunt”, and of Trump’s finances. The public has sided with the investigation and the rule of law, and against Trump.
Writing at Vox this week, Dylan Matthews noted that liberals and Democrats yearning for a decisive end to the Trump presidency that cleanses the country of its stain — such as impeachment — are likely to be disappointed. Instead, we face a long, hard slog. But I would add an important nuance: liberals and Democrats across the country are responding to Trumpism with politics and organising. It’s plausible that many of these voters understand Trump’s racism and assaults on the rule of law as threats to the country, prompting high turnout and electoral organising that may be driven by a desire to reinvigorate our democracy against Trump’s degradation of it.
We don’t talk enough about the deep and widespread public rejection of Trumpism and what it means for the country and its future. Because so many of us got it wrong in 2016, a kind of defensive posture has set in that has rendered us reluctant to speculate on the meaning of polls indicating this rejection.
By all means, caution is always in order when interpreting polling data. At the same time, this should not blind us to what is right there in plain sight at the end of our noses.
• Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant — what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the Left
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