A Stark Warning: How Trump's Popularity Could Skyrocket
First the good news. In the space of six months Americans have already rendered their verdict on the Trump Administration, and it is devastating:.
President Trump’s approval rating has dropped by about one percentage point per month and now sits in the mid-30s. At the current rate, it would hit zero in September 2020. (A highly unlikely possibility, though with Donald Trump, anything is possible.) Measured in less quantifiable terms, Trump’s political decline has not occurred in so linear a fashion. It has happened, as Ernest Hemingway wrote about bankruptcy, gradually and then suddenly.
It is impossible to pinpoint one single event that has cemented Trump’s precipitous downfall in the eyes of the American people—from his buffoonish and arrogant conduct towards our European allies, to the stench of corruption evident in all of his Cabinet picks, to the corrosive, fetid pool of collusion forming from the constant dripping evidence that he cravenly sought to secure his election with the assistance of a hostile foreign dictator to whom he is clearly in some type of financial hock. A great number of Americans recognized Trump as an abhorrent person, grossly unfit for the office well before he secured an Electoral College majority while losing the popular vote substantially.
But probably the most accurate take is simply that Americans—at least ones capable of critical thinking-- have quickly grown weary of his narcissistic showmanship and strutting reality-TV arrogance. Trump is as far from a “role” model for American children as can be imagined, and it is painful for parents of young children in particular to have to explain such a loathsome presence in a government they are being brough up to honor and respect. Even Republicans in Congress no longer feel the need to fake showing this person any respect. The same is true for the people within his own Administration:
The conviction that Trump is dangerously unfit to hold office is indeed shared widely within his own administration. Leaked accounts consistently depict the president as unable to read briefing materials written at an adult level, easily angered, prone to manipulation through flattery, subject to change his mind frequently to agree with whomever he spoke with last, and consumed with the superficiality of cable television.
As Joathan Chait, writing for New York Magazine, observes, the items on Trump’s agenda—to the extent he has a real agenda—are unlikely to ameliorate his sorry approval ratings at this point. Tax “reform” geared to enrich the top 1% and the elimination of the mortgage interest deduction, all proposals Trump has threatened to pursue, will do nothing to reverse his fortunes in the eyes of the public.
Americans made a grievous mistake in electing this man, but the fact that they are coming around to recognize that fact is heartening.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that Trump is a single significant terror event away from regaining his popular standing and one quick war away from enjoying a wave of popularity that will enable him to inflict even worse damage on our Republic than he already has.
Trump could regain public standing through the rally-round-the-flag effect that usually occurs following a domestic attack or at the outset of a war. A miniature version of that dynamic was on display in April, when Trump launched a small missile strike on Syria, garnering widespread praise in the media for his newfound stature. The 9/11 attacks elevated George W. Bush’s approval ratings for three years, long enough for his party to gain seats in the 2002 midterms and for Bush, two years later, to win what is still the Republican Party’s only national-vote plurality victory since 1988.
An Administration that thrives on exploiting American fears would find the swimming immensely pleasurable in the aftermath of a serious terror attack on American soil. The fact that Trump and his cronies have such little regard for Constitutional constraints on their power to begin with suggests that they would make every attempt possible to subvert those constraints given the opportunity provided by terrorism. And if such an attack never comes, there are other ways of ginning up Americans’ support, most notably by starting a war.
The clearest and most obvious example of this was the atrocious and obsequious conduct of the US media as well as both political parties—but most notably the Democrats, in the wake of the September 11th attacks.
After 9/11, Democrats and the mainstream news media, harking back to the national unity that prevailed after Pearl Harbor, demonstrated their patriotism by supporting their president almost unquestioningly. That choice allowed Bush to escape scrutiny for policies that may have helped enable the attacks to happen.
Whie 9/11 occurred in a somewhat different era, the right wing media noise machine was not nearly as sophisticated, nor its audience as domesticated, as they are today. Today a large segment of the public has willfully walled itself off from facts, preferring to be told what is right or wrong exclusively by the likes of Breitbart and whatever makes it into their heavily-filtered Facebook newsfeed.
Chait argues that the way to prevent this same, knee-jerk reaction from happening again under Trump is for the responsible media, and the American people, to refuse to accept the assumption in the first place—to refuse to kowtow and accept what comes out of this Administration’s communication organs in the event of such an attack, or war—as worthy of consideration, given its amply-demonstrated horrendous incompetence, enthusiasm for wholesale lying and general venality:
The ability of a president to gain popularity by launching (or suffering) an attack is not a law of nature. It reflects, in part, choices — by the opposition to withhold criticism and by the news media to accept the administration’s framing of the facts at face value. A chaotic, still-understaffed administration led by a novice commander-in-chief who has alienated American allies deserves no benefit of the doubt. Everything from Trump’s incompetent management of the Department of Energy, which safeguards nuclear materials, to the now-skeletal State Department, to his blustering international profile has exposed the country to an elevated risk of a mass tragedy. A long-term task of the opposition is to prevent the crumbling presidency from transmuting that weakness into strength.
When the event occurs—and it will very likely occur, in some fashion or another—the key will be not to fall into the trap of rallying behind a demonstrably incompetent Administration, but instead to oppose and resist any attempt by Trump to usurp power or defy the Constitution, both of which he has shown himself more than willing to do. This means holding Trump and his cronies--and holding the media--to account for every word they utter, and every action they propose.