Gauging Trump’s Base


For many Americans, arguably a majority, the early days of the Trump Presidency have provided a torrent of bad news: executive orders that will harm large numbers of people; cabinet appointees hostile to the legislatively mandated missions of the agencies they will be heading; public statements and tweets that reveal a mean-spirited and perhaps unstable president; and actions designed to undo a world order that has maintained peace for decades.

Apparently, however, many citizens don’t share those concerns and are infact delighted with the roll-out of Trump’s administration.  Some articles shortly after the election suggested voter remorse, not unlike that in Britain after the Brexit vote, but there’s really not a lot of evidence to support those assertions. Others predicted an immediate clash between the highly unorthodox president and Republican members of Congress, but, so far, they are largely hanging together. Even the public opinion polls, which showed his initial ratings as historically low, have held steady among his supporters.

Trump’s appeal was constantly underestimated during the Republican primaries and then during the General Election.  He won despite a broad consensus that he was unqualified, erratic and running a campaign that disregarded all the established rules.  Even if the first two observations are actually correct, the third point turned out to be the key to his winning office.  Trump had a better read on the mood of the electorate than almost all political observers realized.

There’s been a lot of speculation among opponents that as the Trump agenda begins to be implemented, some of his supporters will abandon him because they will be harmed personally by his policies.  Certainly there are a number of areas in which the reality of a Trump Presidency will be quite different from the promise of one, but how much that will matter to his supporters remains to be seen.

The early analysis suggested that Trump voters were highly motivated by the slow and shallow economic recovery during the Obama years, that many of them were victims of the new global economy.  Later studies paint a more complex picture.  Trump had lots of backers who weren’t hurting economically.  It is increasingly clear that some of his appeal had nothing to do with economic arguments.

The classic reference for the assertion that voters are not just motivated by economic self-interest is Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”  To greatly simplify his argument, Frank concluded that Republicans had won support from working class residents of Kansas by appealing to them on such critical social issues as abortion, gay rights and gun control.

Two issues which may measure the relevance of that assessment to Trump’s popularity will be tested over the coming months and years.  A central piece of his campaign was the promise to grow the economy and, particularly, to bring back manufacturing jobs and the coal industry in this country.  Most reputable economists doubt that either of those goals can be accomplished, at least not in the way that those sectors existed several decades ago.

The decline of manufacturing jobs in this country is much more due to technological advances than to them being shipped abroad.  The world energy market, particularly with the growth of the shale oil sector, is fundamentally different from when coal was king.

So far, Trump has focused on jawboning individual companies to keep jobs in this country rather than move them to Mexico or some other place.  While those “negotiations” make for dramatic headlines, the results have only a marginal impact on total jobs or the overall economy.

Does there come a point at which voters realize that Trump is not going to be able to deliver on these economic promises?  And if so, will it change their opinion of him and the way they vote in future elections?

The answer may not be as obvious as some would expect.  So far, Trump is making good on other campaign promises which are keeping his base happy.  He has started the process of building a wall along the Mexican border.  He has instituted a ban on Muslims entering the United States.  He has nominated an extremely conservative judge to serve on the Supreme Court.

In addition, Trump has maintained his practice from the campaign of asserting that everything he is doing is a success and of attacking opponents and “political correctness”, or, in other words, of using the same populist demagogic tactics that got him elected.

Another issue on which some analysts believe he may be vulnerable is health care.  Will all those supporters who bought into hating “Obamacare” but were pleased with their coverage under the Affordable Care Act turn on him when they lose their health insurance?  What about the large group of older Americans, many of whom backed Trump, who count on Medicare and Social Security?  How will they feel when Trump accedes to Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize those two programs?

As with jobs, the question will be whether the other things Trump “gives” the base outweigh the tangible losses that they will feel from his specific policies.  At this point, the answer to that question is not self-evident.

For those dismayed by the Trump presidency, wishful thinking about erosion of support among his base is a futile approach.  Strategic political activism is the only way to minimize the negative consequences of his presidency and to eventually reclaim political control.  It’s not going to be easy and it’s not going to be pretty, but there’s no alternative.