It was a trademark Donald Trump performance down to his invoking a race of sycophants with the typically vague formulation “Some people have said.” In his self-absorbed ramble at a Monday night South Carolina rally, Trump boasted, “Some people have said I have the greatest political instinct in 50 years.”
Of course, 50 years gets us right back to Richard Nixon.
Maybe this isn’t surprising given the president’s longtime allegiance to Nixon campaign veterans like Roger Stone and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, whose meals and shelter are currently being provided by the government at the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Virginia.
At the rally for South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, Trump emulated the fake humility of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when he thrice refused the crown. Three times Trump said, “I don’t think so” about claims about his legendary political genius. Then, the pretense over, Trump admitted, “But I have my own feeling.”
In fairness, there are those with admiration (grudging or not) for Trump’s ability to tap into the dark undercurrents of the American psyche. Even the moral and political disaster of children taken from their parents has been interpreted as an instinctive Trump move to motivate his nativist base voters in November.
But before we bequeath the Republicans continued control of Congress in November and Trump another term in 2020, there is a mystery to unravel. Call it “The Case of the Missing 15 Percent.”
If the president is so adroit at politics that all the rest of human history will be referred to as A.T. (After Trump), then why is his approval rating 15-20 percentage points below what you might expect with unemployment at near historic low levels?
ICYMI: Trump Asks GOP Lawmakers for Border Wall Funding
How low can it go?
Polling, dating back to the 1960s, suggests that presidential approval should be near 60 percent (or higher) with a booming economy and few American combat deaths abroad. Instead, Trump is at 41 percent from Gallup (whose numbers I will use for the rest of the column for consistency) and 43 percent in the moving average from RealClearPolitics.
In April 2000, for example, unemployment under Bill Clinton dropped to 3.8 percent (the current rate). With impeachment behind him and the Cold War long over, Clinton’s approval rating was a robust 62 percent.
It wasn’t just the Clinton magic or Democratic partisanship. In April 2001 (five months before 9/11), George W. Bush was presiding over an economy with low 4.4 percent unemployment. His approval rating: a Clintonesque 62 percent.
Going back further, the unemployment rate was under 4 percent for all of 1969, Nixon’s first year in office. Even though the Vietnam War was raging (with more than 11,000 deaths that year), Nixon’s approval rating bubbled as high as 65 percent and never drifted below 55 percent.
Historical parallels should be regarded as suggestive rather than worshipped as objective truth. Certainly, 9/11, the Iraq War and the Great Recession have undermined faith in all authority figures. But Barack Obama still managed to leave office 17 months ago with a hefty 59 percent approval rate, a number that Trump has never come close to approaching.
Not so golden tickets
Trump’s golden gut has convinced him that restricting immigration is an automatic ticket to political success. This crusade has carried him from railing against purposed Mexican “rapists” in 2015 to attacks on legal immigration reuniting families to the recent use of words like “animals” and “infest” to describe those crossing the border.
Despite Trump’s instincts, it is hard to find evidence in the polls that demonizing immigrants is a long-term winning strategy. In a poll conducted in the first half of this month, Gallup found that only 29 percent of Americans want immigration to be reduced. This, by the way, is the lowest number since Gallup began asking the question more than a half-century ago in 1965.
In similar fashion, Gallup found that 75 percent of Americans in June described immigration as “a good thing.” That again is the highest percentage for a pro-immigration viewpoint since Gallup started posing the question in 2001. Also, the June Gallup survey found that a 57 percent majority opposes building a wall on the Mexican border.
The curse for Republicans in November is that Trump’s incendiary love of pyrotechnics will divert attention from the GOP’s efforts to link tax cuts to the dramatic growth of “Help Wanted” signs. Another president might have learned from the disaster at the border, but changing tactics and tone are not in the Trump repertoire.
Many presidents have come to the White House chastened by political defeats or have learned from setbacks on the job. Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 after twice failing to win the Republican nomination. Bill Clinton reinvented himself after both losing re-election as Arkansas governor in 1980 and after triggering a Newt Gingrich takeover of the House in 1994. Even George W. Bush reversed position on torture and stopped depending on Dick Cheney after the Iraq War turned into a modern-day Vietnam.
In contrast, Trump has all the flexibility of the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.” It will be Trump’s way or Trump’s way — and good luck to any GOP congressional candidate who wants to change the subject.
More than four months from the 2018 elections, it is folly to make any hard-and-fast predictions. But if the Republicans lose the House and fail to make gains in the Senate, the best explanation may lie with Trump’s missing 15 percent.
Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.