President Trump’s job approval ratings had been rising for more than six months until last week. His rapid decline from 44.6 percent to 42.2 percent in the Real Clear Politics average cannot be explained by bad economic news or a foreign policy reverse. Quite the contrary: unemployment hit an 18-year low in figures released on June 1 and the summit with North Korea was re-started on the same day.
His ratings probably dropped, therefore, because of two pieces of news that broke June 3-4: Trump’s decision to disinvite the Philadelphia Eagles from a White House ceremony honoring their Super Bowl victory and his assertion that he had the power to pardon himself. This disconnect between public policy successes and Trump’s personal behavior points to the continuing political challenge he faces: how simultaneously to rally his ardent backers while drawing in others currently on the fence.
The Eagles decision likely turned what could have been a political success into a debacle. Had the event gone as planned, the focus would have been on the players who chose not to attend to protest the president. A gracious Trump could have recognized this, noted that many of the boycotting players disagreed with his approval of the new NFL policy barring players from kneeling on the field during the national anthem, and expressed sorrow that they could not overcome their personal feelings to express respect for the nation and their teammates.
The Left would have howled, but polls show that Americans support the new NFL policy. Americans on the fence also tend to think people should respect the office of the presidency even as they hold conflicting views about any particular president himself. Playing it this way would have sent the desired message to his base and to the undecided that he, not the players or the Left, was the bigger man.
Doing precisely the opposite sent exactly the opposite message. Disinviting the Eagles made Trump’s behavior the focus and canceling a visit from the Super Bowl winners just looked like bad manners. This, in turn, focused attention on the NBA finals, where team leaders and superstars LeBron James and Stephen Curry said they wouldn’t want to attend a ceremony honoring their teams either, leading Trump to cancel preemptively any potential celebration for either team. The focus was again on Trump’s behavior rather than on the athletes’.
Some Trump backers might say this approach actually helps him as it shows him fighting back. They might note that polls show over 20 percent of blacks agree with the new NFL policy and that some polls show Trump’s job approval ratings are between 15 and 20 percent among blacks in some polls. While other polls show Trump with the same abysmally low ratings with blacks that most Republican presidents receive, the conflicting evidence suggests that Trump might be making some inroads in the black community. Were he to get 15 percent of the black vote rather than the 8 percent he got in 2016, Democrats’ chances of retaking the Midwestern states Trump won from them would drop dramatically.
The problem is Trump needs to add support among everyone to ensure his re-election and to push through his agenda.
Don’t Talk About a Self-Pardon
If Trump is doing better than expected among blacks but the same compared to other Republican presidents among all other voters, it stands to reason that he is losing support that he could otherwise garner. The sudden drop in his approval rating strongly suggests this is what is happening. This, in turn, suggests that he would be losing potential support from Midwestern whites, wiping out the gains he could obtain from his potential advances among blacks.
Trump’s self-pardon tweets make the identical political error. The voters Trump needs to pick up hold conflicting views on the matter of Mueller’s investigation. Democrats overwhelmingly think that Trump colluded with Russia, that the investigation should continue, and that Trump should be impeached. Voters as a whole, however, only agree that the investigation should continue. They are split on the question of whether Trump colluded with Russia and a clear majority opposes impeachment. Given the massive splits among partisans of both parties on these questions, it’s clear that the vast American middle supports the idea of the rule of law as a primary virtue. As things now stand, that favors Democrats when the question is the continuation of the investigation, but it favors Trump when it comes to the underlying substantive questions.
This is why pushing back on Mueller is helping Trump. Prior to the self-pardon tweet, Trump generally criticized the investigation on substantive matters, pointing out that it has yet publicly to unearth substantial evidence of collusion with Russia. Keeping the focus on Mueller and the Democrats’ inability, thus far, to substantiate the claims often repeated in the media helps make Trump appear to be the victim in the eyes of his partisans and many of those he needs to attract.
Trump’s self-pardon tweets put the focus back on him, and that is not to his advantage. It does not matter that many legal scholars, even those on the Left, concur that he probably does have the constitutional power to pardon himself. His assertion makes him appear, at least to those less versed in the structure of constitutional law, to consider himself to be above the law and that triggers the same values regarding fairness and the rule of law that currently place many Americans on his side regarding impeachment.
Bill and Hillary Clinton understood this very well when they mounted their counterattack after the publication of independent prosecutor Ken Starr’s report. Their carefully crafted counterattack argued that Clinton was the victim of a partisan-motivated witch hunt that was using inflated charges arising out of an ill-advised extramarital affair to unseat a president with whom they disagreed. The American middle rallied to their cause, buying the argument that Clinton was the victim even as they deplored his affair and its consummation in the Oval Office. Democrats gained five seats in the House in that fall’s midterm elections, the first time since 1822 that a president’s party had gained House seats in an election held after that party had held the White House for six years.
Missing the Point
Some Trump backers could argue that the president’s behavior is correct because he is the victim of an unrelenting attempt by his adversaries to use the levers of power they control in the bureaucracy and media to overturn the results of a democratic election. Let’s assume that is correct, for the sake of argument. Trump’s strategy, in this case, ought to be geared toward winning the battle for public opinion, as only that will sustain him. He should argue that he cannot be removed from office through indictment and conviction; only impeachment and removal by the people’s elected representatives can do that. If he retains public support on that ground—that he might be a problematic president or a bad man in the eyes of some, but he does not deserve removal from office—Republican Senators can rest assured they can vote to acquit him and win re-election, much as Democratic Senators did after their votes in the Clinton impeachment trial.
Trump’s detractors say this misses the point, that Trump’s behavior is meant to obstruct the investigation from obtaining the evidence that could lead to his impeachment. Trump’s self-pardon tweet, in this view, is not meant to be a statement about himself but to his associates currently under investigation. If you don’t flip, this line of argument holds the president to be implicitly stating, I will pardon you for the other crimes Mueller is charging you with.
This argument also misses the forest for the trees. Americans view impeachment as a serious matter, to be undertaken only in cases of serious import. If the primary evidence against a sitting president is uncorroborated testimony from people like Manafort and Cohen, I suspect Americans not already convinced of the President’s guilt will be unlikely to go along with impeachment. Americans swung against President Nixon only because the White House tapes gave them evidence in the president’s own words that convinced them he was guilty. President Reagan was able to survive clear evidence of wrongdoing within his administration during the Iran-Contra Affair only because he could credibly claim not to have personally approved or been aware of his aides’ actions. Trump is likely to survive any attempted impeachment absent documents or secret recordings that directly implicate him personally. That would be doubly true if he followed a Clintonesque strategy of castigating the effort as part of a “vast deep state conspiracy” identical in kind to the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that the Clintons vilified in their effort to forestall impeachment.
Abraham Lincoln summed up democratic politics nicely in one of his debates with Stephen Douglas. “In this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed.” The polls in Trump’s case are clear: some of the aggressive tactics that thrill his supporters alienate those whom he could persuade.
Trump himself could prevail in the absence of their support so long as they see him as the lesser of two evils in 2020. Trump’s cause, however, cannot prevail without them. Molding public sentiment should be the primary goal of every Republican president, as Republicans can break through liberal media dominance only when they hold the White House’s bully pulpit and set the public agenda. Trump’s failure consistently to do that remains the central flaw of his tenure, one that threatens to derail the entire agenda.
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).