Trump’s reck­on­ing is well un­der­way

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robin­son Eu­gene Robin­son is a colum­nist for the Washington Post.

For the new year, crit­ics of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump should re­solve not to be in­tim­i­dated by the po­ten­tial wrath of his vaunted po­lit­i­cal base. The only one who should cower be­fore the Make Amer­ica Great Again le­gions is Trump him­self.

And he does fear them, bigly. The lat­est il­lus­tra­tion is the­way he chick­ened out on a bi­par­ti­san agree­ment to keep the gov­ern­ment fully funded, in­stead forc­ing a par­tial shut­down over chump change for “the wall.” I use quo­ta­tion marks be­cause there never was go­ing to be an ac­tual, phys­i­cal, con­tin­u­ous wall along the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der, much less paid for by the Mex­i­can gov­ern- ment. The pres­i­dent is des­per­ately try­ing to avoid ac­knowl­edg­ing this and other re­al­i­ties be­fore the 2020 elec­tion.

Any­one who thinks Trump is amaster politi­cian is wrong. He’s a mas­ter il­lu­sion­ist, which isn’t the same thing. Politi­cians can’t keep pulling rab­bits out of empty hats for­ever. At some point they face a reck­on­ing, and Trump’s is well un­der­way.

Trump is tal­ented at mak­ing it ap­pear he has more than he re­ally does— more money, more re­spect, more sup­port. All those cam­paign ral­lies be­fore the midterm elec­tion were not just an at­tempt to save the Repub­li­can ma­jori­ties in Congress or feed Trump’s in­sa­tiable ego. They­were also demon­stra­tions of the fer­vor of his core sup­port­ers— and im­plied warn­ings to Repub­li­cans who might cross him.

Trump tries to project an im­age of im­mense strength. But it turns out that the man who made “You’re fired!” a tele­vi­sion catch­phrase can’t sum­mon the nerve to ac­tu­ally dis­miss any­one in per­son. Trump’s blus­ter cam­ou­flages great weak­ness.

Look at his po­lit­i­cal stand­ing. Trump won the pres­i­dency with 46 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote. (That’s com­pared to 48 per­cent for Hil­lary Clin­ton, but who’s count­ing?) His mar­gin in the Elec­toral Col­lege, which he tries to por­tray as a great land­slide, was ac­tu­ally quite puny— smaller than ei­ther of Barack Obama’s, ei­ther of Bill Clin­ton’s, the late Ge­orge H. W. Bush’s or ei­ther of Ron­ald Rea­gan’s.

Trump did have a big­ger elec­toral mar­gin than Ge­orge W. Bush ever man­aged to win. But only Trump has the un­flat­ter­ing dis­tinc­tion of win­ning a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion while los­ing the pop­u­lar vote by nearly 3mil­lion.

No mat­ter. A skilled politi­cian would seek to ex­pand his base of sup­port. But ac­cord­ing to Gallup, Trump’s ap­proval has been un­der­wa­ter since the day he took of­fice— never once reach­ing higher than 45 per­cent— and now stands at 39 per­cent.

Does that ap­ples-to-or­anges com­par­i­son of vote per­cent­age and ap­proval rat­ing re­ally mean that Trump has lost sig­nif­i­cant sup­port? Not nec­es­sar­ily— un­til you also take into ac­count the re­sults of the midterm elec­tion, which can only be read as a mas­sive re­pu­di­a­tion of Trump and all he stands for. Democrats cap­tured the House, de­fended all but two of their im­per­iled se­na­tors, and grabbed gov­er­nor­ships and state leg­is­la­tures across the coun­try. The Demo­cratic Party’s House pop­u­lar-vote mar­gin was the big­gest ever seen in a midterm.

So much for the ethno- na­tion­al­ist-pop­ulist wave that Trump is sup­posed to be surf­ing.

It is a mis­take to un­der­es­ti­mate Trump’s base or to sug­gest that all the is­sues he raises are, be­cause he raises them, in­valid. There are le­git­i­mate rea­sons, for ex­am­ple, to want to en­sure bor­der se­cu­rity. But racism is not one of them; and a use­less wall, meant to sym­bol­ize re­jec­tion of a brown­skinned “in­va­sion,” is not an ac­tual solution.

The fact is that Trump touched a nerve that­was al­ready in­flamed. Race, eth­nic­ity, cul­tural her­itage, eco­nomic dis­lo­ca­tion, opi­oid ad­dic­tion, the ef­fects of free trade, the im­pact of ro­bot­ics— all these is­sues were out there al­ready, and a lot of peo­ple be­lieved our elected of­fi­cials weren’t deal­ing with them ad­e­quately. Trump hasn’t a clue about what to do or howto do it. But he knows howto poke and prod; he knows howto rile peo­ple up and sell them red hats.

If his core, un­shak­able base of sup­port is, say, around 35 per­cent, then he al­most surely would lose a re-elec­tion bid in 2020. I say “al­most” be­causewe don’t know whom the Democrats will run against him or whether there will be a sig­nif­i­cant in­de­pen­dent or third-party chal­lenger; and I say “would” be­causewe can’t be en­tirely sure that Trump will run again.

For now, hemay be cal­cu­lat­ing that 35 per­cent is enough to keep the GOPled Se­nate from re­mov­ing him from of­fice in the event that the House finds com­pelling grounds to im­peach him. What keeps him from com­pro­mis­ing isn’t prin­ci­ple or de­ter­mi­na­tion. It’s sim­ple fear.

AN­DREW HARNIK/AP

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ar­rives at An­drews Air Force Base, Md., Thurs­day af­ter trav­el­ing to Iraq and Ger­many.

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