by Victor Davis Hanson
August 25, 2017
Just seven months into Donald Trump’s administration we are already bombarded with political angling and speculations about the 2020 presidential race. No one knows in the next three years what can happen to a volatile Trump presidency or his psychotic enemies, but for now such pronouncements of doom seem amnesiac if not absurd.
Things are supposedly not going well politically with Donald Trump lately, after a series of administration firings, internecine White House warring, and controversial tweets. A Gallup Poll has him at only a 34 percent positive rating, and losing some support even among Republicans (down to 79 percent)—although contrarily a recent Rasmussen survey shows him improving to the mid-forties in popularity. Nonetheless, we are warned that even if Trump is lucky enough not to be impeached, if he is not removed under the 25th Amendment or the Emoluments Clause, if he does not resign in shame, even if he has the stamina to continue under such chaos, even if he seeks reelection and thus even more punishment, he simply cannot win in 2020.
In answer to such assumed expertise, one could answer with Talleyrand’s purported quip about our modern-day Bourbons that “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”
Namely, Trump’s enraged critics still do not grasp that he is a reflection of, not a catalyst for, widespread anger and unhappiness with globalization, interventionist foreign policy, Orwellian political correctness, identity politics, tribalism, open borders, and a Deep State that lectures and condemns but never lives the consequences of its own sermonizing.
In particular, the current conundrum and prognostications ignore several constants.
Do Americans Really Believe that Pollsters and the Media Have Reformed?
One, despite the recent Gallup poll, most polls still show Trump’s at about a 40 percent approval rating—nearly the same level of support as shortly before the November 2016 election. That purported dismal level of support is pronounced to be near fatal, when in fact it is not.
Since a) pollsters likely have not much changed their methodology since 2016, and since b) it is fair so assume that the media and those who poll for them continue to despise Trump, and since c) Trump’s exasperating eccentricities continue to make his supporters cautious about voicing their support (even to anonymous pollsters and political surveyors), we can conclude that his actual support could be about 45-47 percent—or close to the percentage of the popular vote he won in 2016.
Given that Trump’s base in the key swing states of the Midwest (the so-called Democratic “blue wall”) has not weakened, there is no real reason yet to think Trump could not win the Electoral College again in 2020 in the same fashion as 2016. In 2004 and 2012, we were told respectively that an unpopular George W. Bush and a sinking Barack Obama might lose reelection; instead they both were re-elected largely with the same election calculus and an even stronger base of support that carried them to victory four years earlier.
Do Americans Really Believe the Messenger Nullifies the Message?
As in 2016, many of those who voted for Trump would prefer that he curb his tweets, clean up his language, sleep eight instead of five hours, and follow all the conventional-wisdom admonitions offered about his misbehavior. But that said, nearly half of the country is probably still willing to overlook his eccentricities for several reasons.
Trump now has a presidential record of eight months. Despite the media’s neglect of it, one can sense changes by just getting out and traveling the country. Even in rural central California, one can feel that it really is true that there is a 76 percent drop in illegal immigration, and immigration law is being taken seriously as never before.
It was no accident that the National Council of La Raza without warning dropped its racialist nomenclature and is now UnidosUS (“Together, US”). Why is the Democratic Party now feigning a focus on class, not racial, issues with its new “Better Deal” FDR/Truman-like echo?
The same pragmatics about changed attitudes are reflected in dozens of local roadside canteens in my environs that have taken down their showy Mexican flags and are now waving even larger American ones. Cement trucks and construction cranes are ubiquitous on the roads in a way not true over the prior eight years. Talk to business people, and they are citing new projects and investments, not voicing anxieties about higher taxes and more regulatory hostility.
Much of Trump’s success so far comes despite congressional ossification and is clearly psychological: people with money to invest or to build things prefer to do so when the head of the regulatory state urges them to create jobs, make money, and help their country get richer, not when he warns them that it is not the time to profit, that they need to share and spread around their wealth, that they must calibrate when they have made enough profits, and that they should concede that the state built their businesses as much as their own daring and talent.
Despite congressional failure so far on reforming Obamacare, conservatives are delighted not just with the Neil Gorsuch Supreme Court appointment, but also with literally dozens of conservative lower federal court appointments, who are both youngish and judicially restrained. Would they have preferred to let Hillary Clinton decide the trajectory of the Supreme Court for the next two or three decades?
Does anyone think a President John McCain or Mitt Romney would have pulled out of the Paris climate change accord?
Trump’s team is reinventing the Environmental Protection Agency, giving clean coal a second life, opening up natural gas and oil exploration on federal lands, building pipelines, and exporting energy. The crash in world oil prices is bankrupting exporters like Russia, Middle East autocracies, and the Gulf States, whose influences are now pruned back by a dearth of cash.
The major cabinet officials are competing to deregulate the deep state and free up individual initiative.
At home the economy grew at a 2.6 percent annualized rate last quarter, and corporate profits at are record levels. So is the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Unemployment is lower than at any time in an over a decade.
The trade deficit is even shrinking and lots of companies have announced relocations to the United States, in reaction to record cheap energy costs and a perceived favorable business environment. And all this comes at a time when the United States is neither seeking optional military interventions nor backing away from thuggish aggression, but is trying to thread the needle in restoring deterrence along the lines of “principled realism.”
The point is not just that no one can know the ultimate fate of the Trump agenda, but rather that so far media hysteria and congressional calcification have not stopped perceived conservative progress. The bottom line is that Trump did prove to be far more conservative than Republican establishmentarians had forecast. To his supporters, Trump’s message is usually distinguished from Trump, the messenger. Politically that means pragmatist supporters can focus on his agenda not his tweets, while Trump’s die-hard voters like his Twitter combativeness, viewing it as a long overdue media comeuppance.
Trump himself is less rather than more likely to keep running a chaotic White House. Appointments like John Kelly as chief of staff, or H.R. McMaster as national security advisor and James Mattis as defense secretary are not symptoms of a sell out to the Deep State, but evidence of Trump’s own acknowledgment that for his populism to be effective, he needs structure and focus.
In sum, lots of Americans support what Trump is doing rather than agreeing with what he sometimes is saying and tweeting—and even more of his base like both.
Do Americans Really Listen to the Conservative Elite Establishment?
Third, Trump does not run in a vacuum, but always in a landscape of alternatives. The Republican Party is split, but so far the NeverTrump establishment is smaller and less influential than the returning Tea-Party/Trump/Reagan Democrat conservative base that in part sat out in 2008 and 2012 or once voted Democratic.
What Trump loses to elite Republican and conservative disdain expressed in op-eds and news show round tables or to Lindsey Graham and John McCain-like denunciations, he has more than made up with new populist Republican support in small towns and communities nationwide. For now, it is hard to imagine any other potential Republican nominee rallying a crowd like Trump or appealing to the losers of globalization in such dramatic fashion.
That we are, once again, being advised that Republican grandees are looking for a new version of Evan McMullin, or that a cranky John Kasich will reenter the primary race in 2020, or that Jeff Flake insists that he is the moral superior to those who stooped to vote for Trump, to be honest, means nada.
More than 90 percent of Republicans voted for Trump before he had a political record, and about the same will do it again based on his conservative agenda as expressed and enacted so far. If the economy hits 3 percent economic growth, with near 4 percent unemployment, the Dow does not crash, and if the Russian collusion charges end up only with symbolic scalps (and all that is possible if not likely), Trump will win over half the independents, solidify his base and likely take the Electoral College.
One of the strangest ironies of the present age is that Trump’s populism (e.g., “our farmers”, “ourvets”, “our coal miners”, “our workers”), which saved the Senate and House for Republicans and delivered the greatest Republican majorities on the local and state level since the 1920s, is either ridiculed or ignored.
Yet the more the economy picks up, the more the administration prunes back the regulatory state, and the more the United States restores deterrence, the shriller will be the argument that Trump’s tweets and behavior nullify solid achievement. Just watch.
Will the New Democratic/Progressive Party Really Rebuild the Blue Wall?
Fourth and finally, the less publicized split in the Democratic Party is probably worse than that of its Republican counterpart. The latter did not stop Trump’s victory in the Electoral College, the former helped ensure Hillary’s “Blue Wall” collapsed.
The current head of the Democratic National Committee, Thomas Perez, is best known for his profanity-laced tirades; his more unstable subordinate Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) recently claimed that Kim Jong-un was a more responsible actor than the president of the United States, while Justice Neil Gorsuch was an illegitimate Supreme Court judge. The former DNC head, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, is facing myriad bizarre scandals. Her replacement Donna Brazile became most famous as a CNN talking head who leaked debate questions to the Clinton campaign. With disreputable icons like these, who needs opposition research?
Almost any of Bill Clinton’s 1990s talking points on government, immigration, race, taxes, or law enforcement could not be voiced today by any mainstream Democratic politician. In 2008, Hillary drank with boilermakers; in 2016 she smeared the lower middle class with taunts of “deplorables” and “irredeemables.”
Truth is, the party mortgaged its soul to the identity politics lobby, and thereby embraced a number of fatally wrong assumptions.
First, record minority registration and turnout for Barack Obama were not automatically transferable to other Democrat grandees. Obama pushed the party hard leftward with a new strategy of uniting previously feuding minority groups under an us/them binary of anti-“white privilege” while at the same time soothing liberals with his Ivy League pedigree, his exotic hip multicultural name, and his mellifluent banality. It is hard to see too many other candidates recreating such political gymnastics.
Second, if Obama did not bequeath an upside legacy, he certainly left a downside. Tribal obsessions with identity politics were implicitly an attack on the white working class. Those in Ohio and Pennsylvania were not just angry for being written off as bitter clingers, irredeemables, and deplorables, but also furious to be scapegoated for having “white privilege” by those who alone enjoyed it. A party run by Pajama Boys, half-educated media talking heads, Middlebury-prolonged adolescents, Bay Area billionaire techies in t-shirts and flip-flops, Hollywood gated grandees, Al Gore green elites, and Black Lives Matter activists is not going to win easily back Michigan and Wisconsin.
Finally, the Democrats failed to see that class-based populism is a far more inclusionary and thus dynamic phenomenon than is racial tribalism—for both whites and non-whites. Democrats are finally worrying that they have lost the white working class; they should be even more terrified that they might lose 40 percent of the traditional minority vote if the economy keeps growing and Trump keeps talking about protecting low wage-earners from the dual threats of globalization and illegal immigration.
In sum, the Democratic Party has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It is doubling down on exactly what lost it the Blue Wall.
Ditto the Republican NeverTrump establishment that seeks to recapture relevance by reemphasizing exactly what lost it influence in 2016. The argument that Trump, the man, is so beyond moral redemption that Trump’s agenda is irrelevant will not fly with those who feel that they are already better off than in 2016. And the idea that conservative populism is a temporary deviation from a winning and properly orthodox Jeb Bush conservatism is delusional.
Trumpism is not an eponymous political movement per se. It was merely an adjective for the reification of far greater preexisting political realities.
— The Anti-Trump Bourbons: Learning and Forgetting Nothing in Time for 2020 originally appeared at American Greatness.