Recently, there has been a lot of commentary (examples here and here) and quite a bit of hand-wringing about the fact that Trump voters seem to be sticking by him, despite his epic failure after 100 days to provide anything close to a legislative win, any tangible progress on any of his signature campaign promises, or indeed, any tangible evidence that he has the slightest idea what he is doing.
Pollsters and pundits seem to be interpreting these findings as a kind of insane loyalty to a man who, by every behavioral indication, has already sold out his electoral constituency, with absolutely no remorse – or perhaps even awareness – about doing so.
Trump at 100: American carnage or American con?
For many anti-Trump commentators in the media, Trump’s betrayal of his base – an indisputable fact that began with his Cabinet selections and reached its peak with his casual willingness to take away millions of his followers’ health insurance – is simply the expected behavior of a con man in the closing stages of his con. As immortalized in the movie The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the perfect con always ends with the mark (that’s the Trump voter) not realizing he’s been conned, because this is the only way to guarantee he will not come back and seek revenge later on. And this is what the polling seems to indicate — the mark in this truly epic con appears to be buying the misdirection, blaming the false villain designated as the fall guy, and continuing to embrace the con man wholeheartedly and without second thoughts.
For the shrinking cohort of Trump cheerleaders in the pundit class, Trump’s failures, missteps, and incompetence in his first 100 days are also undeniable. So their early fist bumps and high fives have devolved into a meek squeak of tepid support, usually confined to the claim that he just needs more time to make the magic start happening. Diehard pro-Trump opinion-piece writers find it hard to work their rhetorical way around the reality that the key hoaxes of the con have already been exposed: his ridiculous claim that he alone could fix it, his promise to begin doing so on Day One, and his now breached “Contract with the American Voter,” in which he proclaimed (in writing, over his signature) his personal “100-day action plan for Making America Great Again.”
All this lies in tatters at the feet of his 100-day debacle.
Trump is now in full deny and deflect mode. Asked about that “Contract with the American Voter,” Trump replied on April 24 in classic con man fashion, “Somebody, yeah, somebody put out the concept of a hundred-day plan.” Somebody, indeed.
Interestingly, as Trump’s first 100 days fades into history, we see some aspects of his Presidency begin to diverge from the rules of the classic con. For the professional con artist, like Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man, the critical final step in the con is to escape town with the mark’s money before the con is revealed. But in this case, it appears the con man has blundered into an alternative ending. It’s as if Harold Hill decided to run for mayor of River City, was unexpectedly elected by the town’s voters, and now is constantly embarrassed by his utter lack of qualification for the job. Even Trump himself now publicly acknowledges he had no idea how hard it was to be President of the United States. There really is trouble in River City!
But Trump, ever adaptable when his personal interests are at stake, appears to have adjusted by shifting from a short con (getting elected) to a long con (staying in office long enough to maximize his personal fortune). Trump still has no idea what he is doing, shows no interest in finding out, and continues to display a depth of ignorance about the world and history that embarrasses himself, the people of the United States, and our country’s standing in the world, essentially on a daily basis. But as long as he continues to deflect, distract, head-fake, and lie continually, he apparently thinks he just might get away with it.
Which brings us back to those polls
What are these recent polls telling us? They seem to show that Trump’s voters are unaffected by any of his antics and pratfalls and are still blindly supporting him, almost unanimously. According to a University of Virginia Center for Politics poll conducted around Day 90 of Trump’s presidency, 93% of Trump voters still approved of the job he was doing as President, and only 7% expressed any disapproval of his performance. Sounds like the con is still on. Or does it?
As I have argued elsewhere, public opinion polls are almost universally misinterpreted by commentators in the mainstream media. Their biggest error, common because it seems so self-evident, is to assume that when people answer survey questions, they are actually answering the questions asked. This is hardly ever the case. When people are asked whether they approve or disapprove of how the President is doing his job (the usual wording), most cannot answer that question because they really have not been paying attention to what he has been doing. Asking people about the facts of governance or policy reveals this time and time again. So people mentally substitute an easier question for the hard one, often without realizing consciously they’re doing so.
Basically, the simpler question people answer when asked to evaluate a President’s performance is this: “Is he on my team’s side, or on the other side?”
So Trump voters declaring their “approval” of Trump’s performance are really expressing a much more primitive tribal allegiance. They are not answering the asked performance question, they are answering a personal identity question. Trump, they are saying, still represents the “team” I identify with, and I am going to support my team — whether they are having a winning season or not. Equally important (perhaps more important), support for Trump is an easy way to express repudiation of the “other team,” those snobbish elites and pointy-headed intellectuals who purportedly look down on both Trump and me. Commentators tend to forget that in the run-up to the election, only 41 percent of Trump supporters said they were voting for him, while 54 percent said they were mostly voting against Clinton. Support is often more about who you’re against, not who you’re for.
This tendency to use polling questions to state more general sentiments rather than answer the question being asked has been known to social scientist for years. For example, Yale law and psychology professor Daniel Kahan explained during the 2016 campaign why Trump supporters could enthusiastically express obviously false opinions about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama:
“People have a stake in some position being true,” Kahan said, “because the status of their group or their standing in it depends on that answer.”
“But then there are other things that people will say because that’s kind of like a declaration of who they are,” he added. “Part of the reason they might be doing it is because they know it’s really going to get an aversive response from people who have an alternative identity and who know that’s the true answer.”
With birtherism, Kahan continued, there are people who actually believe that Obama is hiding the facts of his birth, but there also a lot of people who are saying that more because it’s a “kind of a middle finger” and because it gives conservatives pleasure to drive liberals batty by saying these things.
Commentators need to learn to be less literal when they interpret public opinion polls.
There are two important questions that current breathless media accounts of Trump’s insanely loyal followers are not asking:
- What, if anything, could make at least some Trump voters change their minds?
- What’s happening with the majority of people who were not Trump voters?
Will Trump voters ever change their minds? Yes they will
With regard to the first question, the key point commentators seem to miss is that continued support for Trump depends on his followers continuing to not pay attention to what he is actually doing. This is pretty easy to do with regard to esoteric issues like China currency manipulation, support for NATO, trade agreements, and even building the border wall or assaulting our environmental protection laws. None of those matters hit Trump voters where they live, in their daily lives, with an immediately observable short-term impact. As long as Trump’s flip-flopping is confined to such largely distant and impersonal issues, his low-information base should remain oblivious and supportive, as the current round of polls indicate.
But it is important to remember that Trump voters became Trump voters because of real personal pain and resentment in their daily lives. As expressed by Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, in an editorial titled “I said Clinton was in trouble with the voters I represent. Democrats didn’t listen”:
“The ordinary working man or woman in this country isn’t asking for a lot. They want to make a decent living. They want to be able to provide for their family, buy a home in a safe neighborhood, put food on the table, go to the doctor when they need to, afford their medicines and educate their children. What many don’t understand is how these things are in danger of becoming unattainable for too many Americans.”
This is the answer to the question “what could make Trump voters change their minds?” If Trump fails to provide any tangible improvements in his supporters’ daily lives, if he fails to deliver on his promises to address those immediate dangers they face every day, his con is going to be exposed, and they are going to start peeling away.
Nobody likes being played for a sucker, especially when their livelihoods, families, and health are put at risk. We should all respect Trump voters enough to trust them not to march over the cliff like lemmings for Trump. But first they do have to realize there is a cliff. And they have to see it in their own lives, not on the TV news or in a strongly-worded editorial in the New York Times.
If Trump and the Republicans in Congress actually manage to make their voters’ lives materially worse, as they are now enthusiastically trying to do with their disastrous Obamacare repeal bill and other anti-middle class, anti-family, anti-safety net measures, no amount of Trumpian misdirection and scapegoating will erase what is right under people’s noses. Once Trump’s betrayal of his followers becomes undeniable, once the pain really starts to hit home, that slim sliver of traditional Democratic voters who switched over to him are going to return home, and the Republicans’ brief moment in the sun is going to fade into a long and very dark night.
What Trump voters are saying today about supporting Trump is essentially meaningless. It is like asking the supporters of a football team two games into the season if they still support their team. Of course Trump voters still support their team. There is little point in trying to convince them to support the other team. Right now that still means switching allegiance to a team they have been deeply conditioned to hate. Only when Harold Hill fails to deliver any instruments to the River City Children’s Marching Band, only when the town’s citizens realize their money is gone and his promises were all lies, will they become re-attached to reality and accept the fact that they have been conned.
Nothing is harder than trying to convince a con man’s mark in the middle of a con that they are in fact being conned. The whole point of the con is to make them believe they are on the verge of a great win. Until that imaginary win turns into a real and tangible loss, they are unreachable.
Is anyone noticing what’s happening with Trump non-supporters?
With regard to the second question, all the media focus on apparently unrepentant Trump voters conveniently ignores a much more important and consequential story. A majority of Americans do not support Trump, and do so with an intensity of disapproval that has never been seen for a President this early in his term. There has been a lot of polling out there, and this is a nearly universal result. Here is the daily Presidential approval numbers from Gallup for Trump’s first 100 days:
Note that the % Disapprove has only touched the 50% line in five out of 100 days. For the most part, it has consistently hovered well above 50%. Meanwhile, approval seems to hit a ceiling of around 43%.
A similar story is told by the poll tracking from Nate Silver’s website:
What commentators are reluctant to say (perhaps it would spoil the “horse race” story line?) is that no President can win reelection with these approval numbers. Not without heaping doses of gerrymandering and voter suppression, at any rate.
Even more telling than the size of the Trump opposition is the intensity of it. As reported in HuffPost on February 10:
“far more Americans strongly disapprove of the way Trump is handling his job (41 percent) than strongly approve (29 percent). That gap means that Trump’s overall 46 percent approval rating includes 17 percent who only “somewhat approve” of his performance.”
This imbalance has persisted throughout Trump’s first 100 days. On February 16, Pew reported that Trump’s strong-disapproval rating (46%) had exceeded the worst strong disapproval rating ever recorded for Obama during his eight years in office. By April 20, an ABC News poll was reporting a 43% strong-disapproval rating and comparing it to the strong disapproval ratings for the previous three Presidents at their 100 day marks: 18% for Obama, 16% for Bush 43, and 17% for Clinton.
Any pollster worth his or her salt will tell you ‘strong disapproval’ rating are usually rare (another exception for Trump) and are remarkably stable (no exception for Trump).
People do not move off a strong-disapproval rating. Once there, they stay there. This is what is remarkable about the American public’s expressed opinion of President Donald Trump. While his strong-approval rating has never topped 30%, his strong-disapproval rating has never dropped below 40%. This is ultimately going to destroy his Presidency.
If, as the political scientists tell us, politics is seen by the public as a team sport, as a battle of identities, Trump’s team simply is not large enough, and does not love him enough, to offset the size and revulsion of the opposing team.
The only real question at this point is whether the strong disapproval Trump brought with him into office and has kept alive throughout his first 100 days can be sustained over the next eighteen months until the 2018 midterms, and then again over the next two years until the 2020 Presidential election. Normally, the kind of burning outrage Trump has ignited would be hard to maintain. Recall the public fury when the Republican Congress shut down the federal government in October 2013. Republican Party approval dropped to 32%, with almost 4 in 10 American having a strongly unfavorable view of the GOP. But by the time the 2014 midterms rolled around 13 months later, Republicans won a net gain of 13 seats in the House and nine in the Senate. Apparently, it’s difficult to sustain hard feelings for over a year.
But if his first 100 days are any indication, Trump is special. As I have argued elsewhere, his cognitive and emotional disabilities make him both highly predictable and his own worst enemy.
Trump has proven he can no more stop being narcissistic, self-centered, arrogant, ignorant, rapacious, and self-destructive than he can stop breathing.
As we move into the second quarter of Trump’s first year, we have yet to see the full public impact of the monstrous display of inhumanity embedded in the House’s Trumpcare bill, nor have we heard a verdict from any of the ongoing investigations of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 election. In all likelihood, these bombshells and others are just going to keep coming in the Presidency of Donald Trump. Whether it’s treason, conflicts of interest, authoritarian overreach, or just outright incompetence, Trump offers many ways to keep the flames of outrage burning.
Here’s the bottom line. It is almost impossible to imagine anyone who opposes Trump today deciding to change their mind and support him tomorrow. On the flip side, it’s equally impossible to imagine everyone who supports Trump today sticking with him after his policy priorities — or possibly his arrangements with Russian cyberterrorists — become daily realities. So the number of Trump supporters and ‘approvers’ today can only go down tomorrow, not up, as Trump continues to blunder his way through his Presidency. This feels like a certainty.
In this broader context, whether Trump’s 2016 voters are still supporting him in public opinion polls at his 100-day mark doesn’t appear to amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.