Trump Isn't Accomplishing Anything But His Voters Don't Care
On Thursday, President Trump held a Rose Garden party for a bill that has not become a law. Earlier in the day, he signed an executive order ostensibly to give churches the ability to directly participate in electoral politics, but the order was so toothless the American Civil Liberties Union said it wasn’t worth the effort to sue. The following day, Trump signed into law a spending bill that including no money for his signature policy proposal: building a southern border wall.
As Trump compiles a record of failures, feints and half-finished work, his determined opponents anxiously await the moment when his voters will wake up and realize they have been conned.
It’s a moment that never comes.
Preeminent evangelical leader Franklin Graham, who attended the signing of the wispy order, raved on Facebook: “A lot was accomplished today at the White House on the National Day of Prayer. … I’m thankful we have a president who is concerned about religious liberty and isn’t afraid to speak the Name of Jesus Christ.” (Other Christian conservatives gently urged the administration to take more concrete action in the future.)
Trump’s biggest fans at his 100th day rally, in between chants of “build the wall,” were unfazed as the president said in passing, “You know, we've done so well at the border, a lot of people are saying, oh, wow, maybe the president doesn’t need the wall.”
Last month, the New York Times caught up with a former factory worker from Carrier, whose Huntington, Ind., job was shipped off to Mexico despite Trump’s pre-inauguration handshake deal with the company. Did she turn on Trump? Nope. “I support him 100 percent,” the 27-year employee told the paper. “He did his best.”
These anecdotes of unwavering support are backed up by polls. Trump’s overall approval numbers are historically low for a first-year president, but they remain sky-high among Republicans.
What that suggests is that Trump doesn’t have to “deliver,” in the traditional sense, in order to retain his base. There need not be amazing trade deals, coal plant ribbon cuttings or a shiny new tax code. They are satisfied with a president with whom they feel culturally in sync. And a large part of that connection stems from whom Trump likes to attack: the media, the Democrats and the “elites.”
As Rush Limbaugh said early last year, by way of explaining how someone who’s not “doctrinaire” was doing so well in the Republican primary, rank-and-file conservatives are not necessarily concerned with ideological principles and policy particulars. “The Republican conservative base is not monolithically conservative. … That’s not the glue that unites them all. … It’s this united, virulent opposition to the left and the Democrat Party and Barack Obama.”
The implication is that conservatives are more defined by what they oppose than what they support. That goes a long way to explain the visceral satisfaction we see at Trump’s re-election campaign rallies (yes, they are literally organized by Trump’s official re-election campaign). Trump fights opponents they want fought. His rhetorical punches land. Heads in the media explode. That’s more satisfying than signing some piece of paper.
Perhaps there is a breaking point. Simmering scandals boil over. The economy suddenly bottoms out. But it may well be that Trump and his voters have weathered so much turbulence already that the bond is unbreakable.
If true, that obviously complicates matters for Democrats. Trump’s approval numbers may be dangerously low for normal politicians. But Trump has already won without the most votes, thanks to the concentration of loyalists he has in key swing states. And so far, the loyalists appear to be staying loyal. Repeatedly trying to convince Trump voters they’ve been conned is likely to be an exasperating exercise.
But there’s a flip side to Trump’s constant feeding of base: his complete neglect of everybody else. Other presidents who have won without cracking 50 percent of the popular vote quickly moved to broaden their appeal and hedge against base erosion. Bill Clinton pivoted to deficit reduction, scrapping his signature middle-class tax cut, to win over Ross Perot voters. George W. Bush reached across the aisle to partner with Sen. Ted Kennedy on education reform and prescription drug benefits.
Trump, on the other hand, just called Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “a bad leader … and his policies are hurting innocent Americans and making it easier for drug dealers to enter our country. … He's leading the Democrats to doom.” Don’t expect a grand bargain around infrastructure anytime soon.
Trump defied pundits like me who believed his base-only strategy couldn’t get him to the White House. And if you do it once, you can do it twice. But his insecure obsession with his winning margin indicates he knows the election was the squeakiest of squeakers. The barest trace of base erosion would bring about his doom.
Sure, the last Washington Post/ABC poll found that 96 percent of Trump voters don’t regret their 2016 ballot, further evidence of that bond. However, depending where the remaining 4 percent live, that slight weakening might be enough to seal his fate. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver previously observed that a shift of “1 out of every 100 voters” from Trump to Hillary Clinton would have flipped four states and reversed the Electoral College count.
Trump has largely proven his early 2016 boast, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.” He can also stand in the middle of the Rose Garden, show himself to be what he claimed to loathe -- an “all talk, no action” politician -- and not lose voters. The only problem is he may eventually have to win some new ones.