Published September 18, 2018
President Trump cannot change America unless he assembles a strong, majority coalition behind him and his policies. So advocates of a Greatness Agenda should worry that his job approval ratings have dropped significantly in the past month. It’s a warning sign. Despite a roaring economy, Americans remain wary of the president and are as yet unwilling to join forces with his base. Bringing that union to fruition is the key political task Trump faces in the next year and a half.
The president’s job approval numbers had been on the rise for most of the year until recently. According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, his approval rating had risen from a low of 37 percent in December 2017 to a 15-month high of 44.6 percent in early June. It then remained steady for two months, ranging between 43.8 percent and 42.8 percent until late August. It has since fallen quickly and now sits just below 41 percent.
It’s quite clear that the Michael Cohen plea bargain, Paul Manafort’s conviction, and Senator John McCain’s death have injured Trump significantly. His rapid decline started on August 28, just a week after Cohen’s plea and three days after McCain’s passing. Polls that came back after that date reflected the news coverage of these events, none of which was positive for Trump.
But it’s not like Trump hasn’t faced bad news from a hostile press and political establishment before. Indeed, that combination is what he faces day in and day out, yet prior to these events he still slowly improved his standing among a large number of Americans. The fact that he did it before suggests he can do it again. How to move forward, then, is the real question.
Picking Better Battles
There’s simply no avoiding the conclusion that there’s only so far that solid accomplishments will take him. The country is at peace, terrorism is being contained, and the economy is red hot. It’s hard to see how things can get better for him. Progress cannot come from trying to get people to ignore what his fans call “his style.” It can only come from modifying that style to keep fans happy while attracting those who might welcome his policies.
That doesn’t mean that he needs to become someone he isn’t. Trump is a fighter and its useless and counterproductive to think he can change. It does mean being more strategic about whom he fights, when he fights, and how he fights.
Presidents have the ability to set the public discussion through effective use of their office. Selecting some priorities and working toward those consistently forces people to react to the president, not vice versa. It’s no surprise, then, that Trump’s rating rose consistently throughout the first half of the year. He was consistently advancing an agenda of immigration control, trade renegotiation, and talks with North Korea. Those issues dominated public discussion, and Trump’s resolute pursuit of those goals meant he was showing people who are open to his agenda that he meant business.
The last few months have been quite different. North Korean talks seem stalled and Trump has stopped trying to push an immigration reform bill through Congress. He also has failed to replace these items with other priorities. Accordingly, he has allowed his enemies to set the agenda for public discussion, and—as always—their preferred topic is his character. Cohen’s plea and McCain’s death focused public attention on those arguments and, at least momentarily, have moved some potential supporters into the other camp.
When You’re Explaining, You’re Losing
Trump’s failure, though, is not simply one of omission. His tweets, which were largely policy-focused the first half of the year, have increasingly become reactive, lashing out at his enemies and the Mueller investigation. By doing that he reinforces the public narrative that these are the issues people should be talking about. That is a grave error.
There’s a saying in politics: when you’re explaining, you’re losing. Trump’s tweets about the Mueller investigation are mere explanations. They excite his fans, but they do nothing to attract those in the middle.
He should learn that while he should respond aggressively when necessary, it’s harmful to reply tit for tat.
His recent tweets about the death toll in Puerto Rico arising from last year’s deadly hurricane is a case in point. The study he was attacking would have received little notice but for his angry reaction: he made his enemies’ contention the focus of the news cycle by his own actions. He needs to get back to what works, for him and for politicians in general: talk about what you want to talk about, not what your opponents want to discuss.
Reassure the Middle, Reach Out to Women
At some point he will also have to address the elephant in the room, race and gender. He’s largely stopped the tweets that once enraged the Left, but he needs to do more than simply stop digging a hole. He’ll never satisfy the Left, nor should he try, but they are not his audience. He needs to do things that start to reassure Americans in the middle that he’s not the ogre the media paints him out to be.
He could start with some high-profile appointments. He should have appointed a woman to replace Justice Kennedy. His next court pick, whether to replace Brett Kavanagh or for the next opening, must be a female. No president has ever had a female chief of staff. If, as reports have suggested for months, General John Kelly will step down after the midterms, he should replace him with a strong, respected Republican woman.
He should also make the case why his signature deviations from Republican orthodoxy, immigration control and trade, are particularly helpful to immigrants who are already in this country. They aren’t here to stay mired in near poverty for generations: they are here to climb up. They cannot climb up if the next rung on the ladder is always being undercut by competition from new, illegal immigrants or from foreign laborers willing to work for less.
Indeed, virtually all models project that nonwhites will be a majority of the working class sometime in the next decade or two. They, not whites, will be the ones who benefit the most from the factories Trump wants to come back to our shores. He should say so, loudly and often.
Trump might not want to do any of these things. He might reason that he won the presidency without doing them, and that trotting out the old playbook is sufficient to get himself re-elected. He might be right, but if he is it’s important for MAGA enthusiasts to understand why his reelection isn’t enough.
Trump won because he forced the 18 percent of Americans who didn’t like him or Hillary Clinton to choose between NeverHillary or NeverTrump. The Democrats’ leftward lurch means he could fight the 2020 campaign on the same ground, forcing those same people to again choose between NeverKamala or NeverElizabeth and NeverTrump. That won’t build the positive coalition that can sustain progress going forward: it will simply recreate the old movement conservative coalition that can agree to stop the far Left but will fail to agree on any common path themselves.
Transformational presidencies transform because they create new, durable, vibrant coalitions that outlast their founders. Only two presidents have built such coalitions in the last century: Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. There is no evidence that Trump has come close to approaching either man’s achievements, and there is plenty of evidence that he is slipping backwards. Those who want him to succeed need to urge him to emulate these men and focus on building that positive, agenda-focused coalition—and thus be wiser in how he fights—before it’s too late.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).