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As 2020 election approaches, Trump is out of touch with the majority of the electorate

Thomas J. Scott

One of the defining characteristics of Donald Trump’s presidency is the assumption that the majority of voters in America put him in office. This, of course, is not the case: Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes, but Trump’s political rhetoric — that he represents majoritarian rule — has created a continuous crisis of legitimacy for Trump’s political agenda. Despite tweets and political pronouncements with phrases like “everyone” and “everybody” designed to promote the aura of legitimacy for his presidency, Trump’s political agenda is focused solely on maintaining his political base, a distinct minority of the American electorate.

According to the Gallup President Approval Ratings, Trump has averaged 39 percent approval ratings during his time in office. The average for presidents over the period 1938-2018 has been 53 percent. As Trump enters the third year of his presidency, he has become increasingly disconnected from the majority of the American population on a host of important domestic and foreign policy issues that will shape the 2020 election — like health care, immigration, the environment and America’s role in the global political arena. Trump’s hard-line position on the border wall that led to the government shutdown is a case in point. Sixty-two percent of Americans were opposed to setting off a government shutdown over a border wall, according to a Quinnipiac Poll in December 2018. A December 2018 NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist Poll found nearly 70 percent of Americans think building a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico is not an immediate priority for the new Congress.

Trump’s pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change and his skepticism regarding human-caused global warming is not supported by a large majority of Americans. In a March 2018 poll undertaken by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 70 percent of Americans agree climate change is happening. Beyond climate change, Trump’s environmental agenda is contrary to the majority of Americans’ view on the environment. A significant majority of Americans believe the federal government is doing too little to protect the environment regarding water, air quality and combating the effects of climate change, according to a Pew Research poll from spring of 2018. The poll also found large majorities of Americans support expanding renewable energy sources such as solar panels and wind turbine facilities.

Health care policy

One of the most important issues confronting Trump’s re-election prospects is health care policy. Republican pollster V. Lance Tarrance claims health care “may have been the key activator of a significant swing vote” in the midterm election. Gallup polls prior to the midterm election found only 36 percent of adults approved of Trump’s health care policy. Tarrance identified a faction of health care “swing voters” who approved of how Trump was running the economy but didn’t agree with his health care policies. Although this group makes up only 16 percent of the overall electorate, 48 percent were Republican or Republican-leaning. The majority of these Republican voters were male, had slightly higher earnings than Trump’s hard-core base, but were more politically moderate. Tarrance theorizes these “swing voters” could have helped Trump expand his base. However, Trump’s unwillingness to create policies to improve The Affordable Care Act or provide an alternative health care initiative drove them to Democratic candidates in the election.

Trump’s continuous degradation of political norms and civil discourse is concerning to many Americans. Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their seminal work “How Democracies Die” have argued that Trump’s breaking of political norms has corroded democratic institutions. They note, “His continued norm violation has expanded the zone of acceptable presidential behavior, giving tactics that were once considered aberrant and inadmissible, such as lying, cheating, and bullying, a prominent place in politicians’ tool kits.” Such abuse of civility has not gone unnoticed by the American electorate. In a Pew poll undertaken in January-February of 2018, 54 percent of those surveyed said that Donald Trump “has not much or no respect for the nation’s democratic institutions and traditions.”

Trump and autocracy

Since the 2018 midterm election, Donald Trump continues to push extreme policies that cater to his 2016 electoral base. As he pushes forward a policy agenda designed to benefit political loyalists over the interests of the majority of Americans, Trump instigates a serious dereliction of democracy. The end result is a classic characteristic of authoritarianism — rule by a corrupt, self-serving oligarchy with Trump as its titular leader.

One of the principal tenets of Trumpism is an executive with absolute power in decision-making. Trump certainly has not been the first president to seek expansive powers. He is unique, however, for his infatuation (perhaps admiration) for autocrats and the consolidation of power they possess. An argument can be made that Trump sees autocratic leaders like Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin as exemplars who accomplish their agendas and become transactional figures. Trump, however, must confront a variety of constitutional and institutional checks on the executive branch. Still, he continuously pushes the normative boundaries of presidential power.

As reported in Axios, Trump has become “enamored with the powers he can exercise … without the approval or consultation of anyone else.” Two types of power stand out: presidential pardons and executive orders, both of which allow Trump to avoid congressional approval. Trump’s unitary display of power is a form of governing Ohio State University legal scholar Peter M. Shane has called “presidentialism.” In his book “Madison’s Nightmare: How Executive Power Threatens American Democracy,” Shane states that presidentialism is an “ethos of government” that ignores specific values that are critical to a functioning democracy: “the rule of law, respect for coequal branches, and divergent political outlooks.” In the world of autocrats, these institutional values become an inconvenience, a distraction, something to ignore and eventually contravene. This is the political world to which all autocrats aspire. It appears to be the world Donald Trump would like to create as president.

The pushback

Democracy is messy. More than two centuries of democratic norms and institutions cannot be destroyed on a whim. The 2018 midterm election was the first step in a majoritarian pushback against the authoritarian impulses of Trumpism. A resurgent wave of liberalism has emerged through the power of the vote. If a complicit Republican Party will not restrain Trump’s autocratic impulses, the people will. His many missteps — Syria, the Wall, trade wars, kowtowing to Putin, attacking the chairman of the Federal Reserve, his assaults on the environment, his volatile and vile demeanor based on racism and misogyny — have conjoined to unite a grand coalition against the Trump presidency. A mid-November 2018 poll from Morning Consult shows majorities disapprove of his leadership in Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the three Midwestern states that catapulted Trump into the presidency.

The 2020 election will ultimately be a verdict on the essence of democracy. As the campaign begins, the majority is flexing its collective political muscle to proclaim: Enough is enough.

Thomas J. Scott is a Twin Cities writer who analyzes international affairs, globalization, and education issues. He is a frequent contributor to Truthout, a nonprofit news organization, and an adjunct professor of world politics at Metro State University; his views are his own and do not reflect the position of the university.


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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 01/17/2019 - 07:52 am.

    The problem is that Trump won with a minority of the vote. He doesn’t need to be in touch with the majority.

  2. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/17/2019 - 11:02 am.

    Obama did the same things. He rammed his policies thru. Remember his comments about the right needs to sit down and shut up? Or his pen and phone comment? For the most part, Trump has simply continued the major policies that have been in place for decades. All recent Presidents have. Obama actually forced a major change (for the worse imo) tho with ACA.

    • Submitted by James Miller on 01/17/2019 - 11:24 am.

      Why do you feel that ACA was categorically a change for the worse? It provided healthcare for people who previously couldn’t get it, eliminated the ability to cancel people arbitrarily, and helped to share the burden of expensive costs. Sure it’s flawed, but lots better than the free-market predecessor, which allowed insurers to arbitrarily dump anyone. What’s your alternative? Allowing the insurance companies to run ragged again? To date, the Reds have proposed no viable alternatives.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/17/2019 - 04:19 pm.

        It did nothing to reduce costs or fix the problems. It drove a lot of people out of the workforce (mandates that consume a vast majority of you 2nd 20k of income), it drove premiums up at rates never seen before (100+% annual increases in some cases). , it pushed most onto Medicaid which is now bankrupting the States that chose to expand it. ACA was simply a cost shift …forcing people who have a net tax burden (those who pay more than they get back) to foot the bill for those who don’t. That’s why 85+% of those with an ACA plan are subsidized.

        The proper fix is to enforce 15 USC 1 (Sherman Anti Trust Act, McCarren Ferguson, et al). That would have brought healthcare spending back down to the 3-4% of gdp historical average instead of nearly 20% now. Prices for care would drop by 80% or more almost immediately. Insurance would be cheap enough that even the poor and those with existing conditions could easily afford it.

        • Submitted by Steve & Gayle Fuller on 01/18/2019 - 02:21 pm.

          Have you forgotten that medical care in the United States is a for profit business? That being true it should not surprise anyone that costs continue to increase at rates much higher than inflation.

  3. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/17/2019 - 03:29 pm.

    Trump is in touch with the majority of the electorate that matters; the one that will re-elect him.

    • Submitted by Ed Day on 01/17/2019 - 09:57 pm.

      I’d replace “majority” with “plurality of national vote but slim majority in key swing states with an outsized influence in the Electoral College (which I acknowledge is the way we do elections) that may or may not have policies that suppress the voter turnout among people who would otherwise vote against him.”

      Otherwise, I’d say you’re absolutely correct.

  4. Submitted by Steve Rose on 01/17/2019 - 10:41 pm.

    Lots of emphasis on polls. As I recall, all the polls predicted a Hillary Clinton Presidency in 2016.

    Headline: “Trump actually did way better than Obama in his first midterm”

    Excerpt: “In 2010, Obama lost 63 House seats. Even if every House race undecided at time of publication gets called for the Democrats, Trump will have lost about half as many seats as Obama did during his first midterm.”

    This you consider “A resurgent wave of liberalism”?

    Among the many polls referenced, my favorite of all is the one conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. I wonder what type of conclusions their polls might reach. Actually, they determined that
    “70 percent of Americans agree climate change is happening”. It seems kind of low, considering that the climate has always been in flux. Minnesota has had three periods of glaciation – year after year of continuous ice coverage. I am glad that is over; now the land can produce food and we can enjoy ice free summers.

  5. Submitted by Kent Fralish on 01/18/2019 - 06:44 am.

    “corroded democratic institutions” and “serious dereliction of democracy” is how Donald Trump became president!
    The erosion of democracy only continues, as is being observed, by both parties right now.

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