By all rights, Donald Trump should be packing his bags and headed to the golf links and his favorite fast food restaurant. Never popular, he has done little to expand his base over the past three years. Unlike previous officeholders, many from more humble beginnings, he also demonstrably has failed to grow in the job.
Yet despite his obvious failings, Trump appears further along the road to re-election than might have seemed possible just a short time ago. The ultra-partisan and ultimately fruitless impeachment process — a censure measure would have been far more effective — simply reinforces the notion that the Democrats, from the moment of his election, have decided to get rid of the president by any means necessary.
The process has thrilled the media and political class but not so much the public. During impeachment week CNN, now best known for its “people’s court” version of political coverage, experienced it worst ratings in three years. Ratings for the Democratic debates have also plunged.
The ultimate impact of impeachment on the electorate remains hard to measure. Some polls suggest the voters may be more favorable toward Trump, although other surveys find impeachment embraced by most Americans.
Overall the president has enjoyed among his best ratings since impeachment process began, with the GOP-friendly Rasmussen poll now finding approval over 50 percent. His is also enjoying a huge boost in fundraising from his outraged base.
The dignity gap
Trump has been unfairly blessed by an opposition whose histrionics match his awful manners, erasing any hoped for a “dignity gap” that could work against him. However crude and clearly unethical Trump’s behavior was on the Ukraine, the failure of the Mueller “collusion” investigation may have undermined the credibility of the current impeachment in the eyes of a many, if not most, Americans.
Democrats, their media claque and the remaining handful of anti-Trump Republicans correctly lambaste the president’s manners, his ad hominem attacks and sometimes vaguely racist or misogynist comments. Yet they have not exhibited any particular dignity of their own or an appearance of fair-mindedness.
Cursing out the president by members of Congress, and encouraging mobs to harass Trump administration officials, simply lowers them to his level. No one would mistake frothing attack dogs like Adam Schiff or Jerry Nadler with the folksy but credible Sam Ervin, who prosecuted Nixon in the Senate with a keen sense of judiciousness.
Trump in many ways may survive the assault on his presidency more than his critics. The mainstream press, morphing from a mildly liberal but essentially fair institution to an adjunct of the Democratic Party, has suffered a profound drop in credibility. Their credulity about any and all accusations from bureaucratic operatives about Trump, no matter how outlandish, has been brilliantly dissected not by systematically marginalized conservatives, but more importantly by left-wing investigative reporters such as Matt Taibbi and the Intercept’s Glen Greenwald. The public may not have read these reports, but the standing of the media and other Trump tormentors — the media, the Congress, the universities — continues to ratchet decisively down.
The economy, stupid
Democrats make the case , and rightly so, that the American economy remains plagued by high levels of inequality, limited upward mobility and a still distressing level of poverty. Yet these same things could have been said under any previous administration, including that of Barack Obama, a case made powerfully in 2016 by Bernie Sanders. The justified complaints that the Trump tax bill has allowed many companies, particularly in tech, to get away with not paying taxes echoes precisely what happened under President Obama.
The remarkably strong economy that voters consider the best in 20 years remains the president’s, if you will, trump card. Even Vox’s predictably leftist Matt Yglesias suggests Democrats need to acknowledge that “the economy is doing well.” This may allow Trump to avoid the Nixonian path to ignominy, but instead follow the footsteps of Bill Clinton, who sloughed off a daft and highly unpopular impeachment by the Republicans, leaving office with as surprisingly a popular figure.
The economy’s progress has helped Trump secure record support by the small business people on Main Street, a key element of his political base. But it also has also benefited poor and mid-skilled workers more than has occurred since at least Bill Clinton.
As unemployment has dropped and growth has trended somewhat higher, wages for the bottom half of the workforce have risen smartly. This could even help gain marginally more support from both African Americans and Latinos, two Democratic groups who have benefited from the current economy.
The Democratic alternatives, largely more taxes and regulation, do not augur well for the more material parts of the economy. Trump’s energy policy, constrained under President Obama, has boosted small town and rural economies from New Mexico to Pennsylvania. The Green New Deal, with its goal of wiping out fossil fuels and resultant higher costs for manufacturers and middle-class households, may not appeal, particularly in places like the south and Midwest where he apparently is gaining ground.
If Trump concludes his trade deal with China, it will boost his chances among both rural and industrial exporters now suffering due to the loss of the Middle Kingdom’s vast market. As we are saw in the recent British elections, working-class voters will support rightist parties over politically correct alternatives if they see conservatives as both better for their households and closer to their cultural beliefs.
A devil, but at least one we know
Like many Americans, I am not comforted by the idea that Trump, without the constraints of running again for office, could well be sitting in the White House for four more years. Since he is clearly ignorant or dismissive of constitutional procedures, we will have to rely on Congress and the courts to rein in his authoritarian tendencies.
But as scary as this prospect may be, Trump is at least the devil we know. The nomination of a standard liberal like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, or even the clearly past his peak Joe Biden, could promise some return to constitutional normalcy. But most of the leading candidates, including the reasonable-sounding Pete Buttigieg, generally follow as progressive Damon Linker recently suggested, “the center of public opinion in elite circles” more than anything reminiscent of the centrism of Bill Clinton or even the careful progressivism of Barack Obama.
Under pressure from their leftist urban constituency, Democrats face a challenge appealing to key working and middle-class constituencies in the Midwest and across suburbia. Left-wing publications like Slate, worried about concessions on their precious green and identity agendas, warn Democrats to cease addressing the concerns of people in the detested “Heartland bubble.”
So, what do the progressive candidates propose in exchange for Trumpian abuses? Their own version of imperial design, whether it’s a massive shutdown of the fossil fuel industry, the centralization of health care and opening the borders or consolidating control of education and industrial policy in Washington. Add the proposal to confiscate the wealth of the affluent and you see the emergence of a kind of Peronism, American style.
This ambitious centralizing agenda includes efforts to overturn constitutional limits on federal power. Many Democrats running have embraced such things as “packing” the Supreme Court, eliminating the Electoral College and even overhauling the Senate to favor more populous urban states. Unlike the Trumpian policies, which could be overturned at the ballot box, many leading Democrats yearn to redesign the system in ways that could prove almost impossible to reverse.
Given these trends, it may well be that only the resilience of our constitutional order can save us from the rising authoritarian tide. I expect to wake up after the election not with expectation but trepidation, no matter who the winner is.
This piece first appeared on The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin
Photo credit: @realDonaldTrump via Wikimedia (Public Domain)