Saturday 24 August 2019

Robert Schmuhl: 'Trump has divided the United States but he will stir up 'forgotten America' to stay in White House'

Loyal: Trump’s supporters are passionate. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images...A
Loyal: Trump’s supporters are passionate. Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images...A

Robert Schmuhl

As Donald Trump's visit piques Irish curiosity about what to expect, his standing back home in America perches on a perplexing paradox. The most unpredictable of US presidents revels in a most predictable level of support from his followers.

A year before his inauguration, Mr Trump boasted: "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any votes."

That statement borders on farcical bravado to describe his backers, but there's more truth to it than many pronouncements uttered by the developer- cum-media celebrity-cum-politician.

Mr Trump received 46pc of the popular vote in 2016 and since then, according to Gallup surveys, he's averaged a job approval mark of 40pc. Not once in his presidency (a first in Gallup history) has a majority of Americans ever registered approval of Mr Trump.

What's most striking is the consistency of the public's opinion. The president has gone above 45pc approval just once (to 46pc) and never below 35pc.

His disapproval numbers have fluctuated between percentages in the mid-50s to as high as 60pc.

Such constancy is uncharacteristic in US presidential polling.

During Barack Obama's first three White House years (about where Mr Trump is now), Mr Obama's approval stayed at over 60pc the first several months but subsequently plunged into the mid-40s, a swing of nearly 20pc.

George W Bush soared to 90pc approval shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, yet dropped to 57pc early in his third year, as computed by Gallup. Disapproval of him during that period sunk as low as 6pc and spiked to as high as 38pc.

Volatility in assessing a president was taken for granted until Mr Trump took office. Despite the drumbeat of stories about Oval Office chaos and a revolving door of high-level appointments, his numbers remain remarkably stable.

Why?

Mr Trump's base of support rivals titanium in strength and durability. His loyalists - by and large traditional Republican, white, middle class, evangelical Protestant and conspicuously rural - love what he's accomplished.

He's helped generate a more robust economy, lowered unemployment, relaxed federal regulations and selected conservative judges.

Crucially, too, they detest his enemies -Democrats, "deep state" government, mainstream news media, influence peddling by the Washington "swamp" and Republicans calling themselves "Never Trumpers".

The president knows exactly how to keep his core constituency committed and passionate. On a non-stop basis, Twitter delivers cyber blasts informing and igniting his nearly 61 million followers.

Punch-in-the-nose outbursts receive hearty applause because the people or institutions on the receiving end of attacks, his backers believe, deserve constant condemnation.

Social media provide Mr Trump with emotional connection to his defenders. He supplements this daily stream of messages with strategically scheduled rallies in states critical to his re-election, staging several already this year where he usually speaks for more than an hour.

He recently travelled to Wisconsin, a state he narrowly carried in 2016. Addressing a crowd of 10,000, Mr Trump vowed that after his second term "you're going to be left with the strongest country you've ever had".

Near the end of the 2018 mid-term campaign, Mr Trump made another stop in Wisconsin to energise voters. A correspondent for 'The Guardian' had an eye-opening exchange with one presidential partisan, who admitted his sister, a liberal Democrat, held opposite views.

This loyalist told the reporter he'd have no qualms about informing his sibling that if there was "a civil war in this country and you were on the wrong side, I would have no problem shooting you in the face". He went on to say: "I love my sister, we get on great. But she has to know how passionate I am about our president."

The release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report about Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign in mid-April achieved little more than deepening the polarised divide between Republicans and Democrats.

Mr Trump and those in his camp regarded the conclusion of no Russian collusion as the case-closing finding.

By contrast, Democrats pointed to several actions raising questions about obstruction of justice as evidence of Oval Office wrongdoing well worth continued investigation.

The president's supporters and opponents are now locked in a ferocious battle about what really happened in the last campaign that will significantly shape the upcoming race.

That situation reflects not only the partisan schism in America today but also the extent to which Mr Trump himself, rather than issues or problems, drives the political agenda in the US.

One concern the president will make a centrepiece of his re-election effort also played a prominent role in 2016.

As a candidate, Mr Trump constantly repeated the perils of illegal immigration, promising to build a wall between the United States and Mexico to correct the problem.

By returning to this issue, the Trump campaign will emphasise that the president is trying to protect Americans: from losing job opportunities, from violent crime and from an influx of drugs.

Anxieties about immigration animated many of his followers in 2016 and these fear factors could be critical to securing another term.

Since becoming president in his unprecedented fashion, Mr Trump has catered to his loyalists to the exclusion of a broader, encompassing national appeal. As the 2020 campaign begins in earnest, the most significant question will be whether he can dig more deeply into his base of "forgotten Americans" to score four more years in the White House.

Robert Schmuhl is professor emeritus of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and an adjunct professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

Irish Independent

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