Searching for Trump’s Tipping Point

Twelve months ago, Donald Trump’s presidential approval rating averaged 38 percent.  Now, the 538 website suggests that Trump’s approval rating has improved to 42 percent. (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/).  Thus, after two chaotic years, a significant segment of the electorate continues to approve of Trump’s White House performance.  What accounts for this?

The Economy:  When I talk to Trump supporters, they say the same thing, “I don’t approve of Trump’s behavior but he has been good for the economy.”

Since the 2016 presidential election, the US economy has done well.  Overall it has grown at a rate greater than 3 percent; in the 2018 second quarter it grew at 4.2 percent and in the third quarter at 3.5 percent.  Even though the economy was growing when Obama was President, it’s reasonable for Trump supporters to laud economic growth,

Nonetheless, there are signs the economy is slowing.  (Over the past month the Dow Jones Industrial Average has dropped about 1500 points.)  How will Trump supporters feel about Donald when the economy slumps?

Immigration: Perhaps, if the economy slumps, Trump voters will be mollified if he begins to build “the wall” along the border with Mexico.  After all, many Trump supporters are satisfied with his stance on immigration; when Donald warned of an immigrant “invasion,” before the midterm election, his base showed up at the polls and saved the Republican Senate majority.

Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that Trump is going to get congressional support to build his wall.  (Although. at the moment, he seems intent on a partial government shutdown to force this issues.)  In fact, it’s unlikely that Donald is going to have any major legislative accomplishment in the near future.  Will this lack of accomplishment get through to Trump voters?

Fox News: Many Trump supporters only talk to other Trump groupies and get their news from the Fox News Network, which puts a pro-Trump spin on everything.

For this reason, Trump supporters refuse to believe negative reports on Trump’s behavior; they dismiss it as “fake news.” No matter how many felonies the Department of Justice links to Donald, Trump’s supporters are unlikely to turn on him until Fox News tells them to.

Recently, we’ve seen signs that the Trump-Fox News relationship is fraying.  Earlier this month, Fox News host Tucker Carlson criticized Trump (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/tucker-carlson-turns-on-donald-trump_us_5c0a33ade4b0b6cdaf5dc43e) for failing to keep his major campaign promises, such as building the wall and defunding Obamacare.  “I don’t think he’s capable of sustained focus. I don’t think he understands the system,” Carlson said.  On December 12th, Fox legal analyst Andrew Napolitano observed, “The American public ‘learned’ on Wednesday that federal prosecutors have evidence President Trump committed a crime.”

Resentment:  Trump’s base is fueled by “white resentment.”  Arlie Hochschild’s book, “Stranger in Their Own Land,” described the viewpoint of Trump devotees:  They feel they have been unfairly denied their shot at the American dream.  They turned to Trump because they saw him as someone outside the government who could shake things up.

Trump voters are similar to women who, in a desperate search for love, make terrible relationship choices.  Even after their partner becomes abusive, they cling to him; saying, “I know he loves me and I believe over time he will change for the better.”  Even after Trump voters are confronted with evidence of his lies and abusive behavior, they continue to support him.  Trump supporters call evidence of malfeasance “fake news.”

In an abusive relationship, it’s difficult for a woman to set limits with her abusive partner.  Often, she is only able to separate after a horrendous event — such as a beating that sends her to the hospital.  Similarly, it’s difficult for Trump voters to set limits with Trump; witness the typical comment, “I don’t like how Trump behaves but he has been good for the economy.”  This suggests that most Trump supporters will stay with Donald until the economy tanks.

The Cultural Divide: Living on the Left Coast, it’s difficult to find hard-core Trump supporters; the vast majority live in other parts of the country, such as Mississippi or North Dakota.  They live in a sympathetic rural culture.

Many observers, such as veteran political reporter Ron Brownstein, (http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2017/politics/state/2016-election-anniversary/ ) feel that we are in the midst of a cultural “civil war”:

Over roughly the past two decades, attitudes toward these [cultural] changes have become the fundamental dividing line in American politics. In both presidential and congressional races, Republicans rely on what I’ve called a “coalition of restoration” that revolves around older, blue-collar, and evangelical Christian whites, mostly outside of urban areas, who feel most uneasy about these changes. Democrats mobilize a competing “coalition of transformation” centered on minority, millennial and college-educated white voters (especially women), who are mostly clustered in major metropolitan areas and the most comfortable with the changes…. More explicitly than any other recent Republican nominee, Trump ran as a candidate of restoration.” [Emphasis added]

From this perspective, Trump’s voters are holding on to him because he’s the most powerful national politician representing their culture.  These voters are not going to abandon Trump until he leaves office.  In many instances Trump supporters see him as their last and best hope to restore the American dream.