Ethics & Public Policy Center

Gaslighting Themselves: Why Trump Critics Miss the Obvious

Published in American Greatness


Unlike many American Greatness readers, I both know and respect Bill Kristol. But a tweet of his on Monday crystallized for me why Trump opponents often seem oblivious to the president’s appeal. It’s not just that they find him odious at best and dangerous at worst: it’s that they have little to no sense of why people might disagree with them and why Trump’s ultimate demise is far from the smug certainty they assume it is.

Bill’s tweet was on Trump’s job approval rating according to the most recent Gallup poll. Kristol noted that it was 41 percent on Memorial Day 2017 and is 40 percent on Memorial Day this year. He then followed by saying, “The economy’s been good, no foreign policy disasters, & no Mueller bombshells. Hard to see how Trump’s numbers improve over the next year. Easy to see how they get worse.”

It’s impossible to miss the triumphalism implicit in this message. Trump’s had as a good a year as he can, Kristol clearly states, yet he is still as unpopular as he was a year ago. Once the tide inevitably turns, he implies, the 45th president will be gone, a momentary and embarrassing blip on American political history.

The problem with his analysis is that it just isn’t true.

Ups and Downs
Trump’s numbers have not been static over the last year. They have ebbed and flowed as any president’s has. According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, which includes every major poll taken in America, Trump’s job approval stood at 40 percent one year ago. It declined throughout 2017 and reached a low of 37 percent on December 13, the day after Roy Moore lost his contentious Alabama Senate election. Since then, Trump’s approval rating has generally been on the rise. As of May 28, it stood at 44 percent, four points higher than one year ago.

I don’t know where Trump’s job approval ratings will go next, but unlike Kristol, I can easily see how they might go higher. The economy continues to be good and despite media predictions to the contrary we are neither engaged in a trade war with China nor a shooting war with North Korea. If they treated Trump with respect, they might note that his recent moves have increased the chances that a favorable resolution—or at least one that will be perceived as favorable in the short run—to one or both conflicts will occur just before the November midterms. That’s exactly what a canny politician would try to do, yet the anti-Trump prejudice prevents Kristol and his allies from seeing this.

In fact, should the economy continue to roar and one or both of these things happen, it is entirely possible that Trump’s job approval rating could rise to the point where more people approve of him than disapprove by year’s end. That is in fact what normal politics would suggest: incumbents usually benefit from peace and prosperity. Yet to even suggest this as a possibility, as I have recently on Twitter, is to invite scorn or disbelief from the anti or never Trump pundits whose views dominate media discourse.

The possibility that a plurality, perhaps even a majority, of Americans could come to see Trump as a success is an anathema to this crowd. Why this is the case is perhaps the most interesting question in politics. But we see this happen over and over again, and not just in the United States. British commentators never saw Brexit coming, and European journalists refused to see that Italy might reject all established parties in March’s elections. Each piece of data that suggested the journalists’ priors were correct was reported with confidence; each piece of data that pointed otherwise was dismissed or distinguished. It is almost as if those whose job it is to report and comment upon country’s politics simply could not see what was happening before their very eyes.

I am not a Trump fan by any stretch of the imagination, yet it strikes me as fairly obvious why many Americans would like the president or think he is doing a good job. Some Americans have been so disaffected by economic changes of the last decade that they see Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of American jobs for American workers as a breath of fresh air. Others find his staunch support of American security as reassuring. Trump’s proposed Muslim ban enrages many of his opponents, but the polling data suggests that this more than any other proposal is what made him president.

Others might be less enthusiastic about Trump but have good reason to think he’s doing a good job. Religiously traditional people see themselves under siege from an elite culture that holds them in contempt and have chosen to embrace the devil that backs them over the devil who does not.

Still others, many of whom are traditional business or free market conservatives, remain wary of him personally but increasingly like his policies. Indeed, there are a number of polls that show Republicans who voted for Gary Johnson to be of this view. They might prefer someone without Trump’s flaws, but faced with the evidence of a man who hasn’t screwed up and who has implemented much of their agenda they seem willing to reconsider their prior anti-Trump views. But few if any of the punditocracy has followed suit, and fewer still can even see that many Americans don’t view Trump as beyond the pale.

Not So Out of the Ordinary
Kristol and others might be surprised to learn that Trump’s approval rating today is not much different than George W. Bush’s was on Memorial Day 2004. Back then, Bush had a 45.6 percent approval rating according to the RCP archives. As with today, the economy had been growing for years and the nation was largely at peace: the Iraq insurgency was only beginning to drag down his ratings. Yet Bush’s job approval ratings bear an even eerier similarity to Trump’s when we look at the partisan breakdowns. According to a June 2004 Gallup release, only 13 percent of Democrats thought Bush was doing a good job compared with 89 percent of Republicans and 39 percent of independents. Today, the most recent Harvard/Harris poll, which shows Trump at 45 job approval, has Trump with a nearly identical 15 percent approval among Democrats and 43 percent approval among independents. Trump performs worse than Bush only among Republicans, where he has “only” 80 percent approval.

In short, despite everything we are told, Trump’s job approval ratings are both similar to and move in the same directions and for the same reasons as with prior presidents. The intensity of the opposition to him, especially among Democrats, masks the fact that for many Americans he is an unorthodox man whom they nonetheless rate according to very orthodox criteria. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would oppose any Republican doing the types of things Trump is doing, and Republicans would largely back them. If Trump continues to do things well, he is likely to continue to gain in public esteem no matter how much he is loathed by people writing and broadcasting from the Acela Corridor.

Trump partisans should not take too much solace from this. The fact remains that Trump backers are only a minority of Americans. MAGA enthusiasts may take delight in every action that drives the media and progressives crazy, but they represent a majority no more—and perhaps a bit less—than do NeverTrumpers.

Up for Grabs
Trump’s political future depends upon his gaining support, not simply mobilizing existing support. Just as Trump could gain support, the past year shows that he can lose it as well. No competent analyst thinks Trump allies could win a majority in Congress should his job approval sink back to the levels they were at in December. And few think he could win re-election with such low numbers even if the Democrats nominate a very progressive person.

America’s political future remains very much up for grabs, and the ultimate decision-makers will be us, the American people. Those who like Trump must find ways to persuade people not already convinced that his vision is closer to theirs than his opponents’. And anti-Trumpers like Kristol would be well served if they took the reasons for Trump support seriously and spent more time addressing them and less time assaulting every maladroit tweet the president sends.

If the last few years of populist movements have taught us anything, it is that the people of any democratic nation know when they are being condescended to and dismissed. When such condescension rises to the level of being perceived as a “long train of abuses and usurpations,” they will invariably “provide new guards for their future security.” Those who claim to be defending American institutions against Trump’s purported depredations ought to be the first to recognize that treating the people with respect as one’s equals is the first, and the most important, principle of American democracy. The fact that this too often seems no be overlooked is perhaps the biggest reason for his rise and his continued—and perhaps his future—success.

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).

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