Misreading the Trump mandate

Matt Bai
President Trump at a meeting with sheriffs in the White House on Tuesday. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

For those who thought Donald Trump would morph into a more conventional kind of president once the gravity of the job sank in, for those who kept telling themselves he would surround himself with old hands and tilt toward consensus, these can’t be reassuring days.

Instead, Trump tweets about imagined voter fraud, berates federal judges and department stores, thunders at allies on the phone and entrusts national security to an alt-right provocateur. The liberal writer Naomi Klein likened Trump’s first weeks on the job to “standing in front of one of those tennis ball machines — and getting hit in the face over and over again.”

In the first-ever reality TV presidency, every week is sweeps week, and every day is a cliffhanger.

If you’re among those who find all this unsettling, though, I offer some hope. In one very important respect, Trump is behaving entirely like those who came before him. And he’s apparently learned nothing from their mistakes.

On their current trajectory, Trump and his allies in Congress are headed straight for a wall — and it won’t be the big, beautiful one he’s always talking about.

Here’s some reality, for which no alternative facts exist: The last three presidents of the United States before Trump were elected with strong majorities in both houses of Congress. Each one of them found his dominance short-lived and ended up controlling nothing and wallowing in futility.

We’ve never before seen a streak like that in American history. It’s not a coincidence.

In every case, some large segment of voters hoped they were getting systemic reform, rather than more old ideology and rigid partisanship. And in every case, presidents and their parties misinterpreted their mandate, or invented one that didn’t really exist.

Bill Clinton won on the promise of a less dogmatic “third way,” then immediately veered left, taking up fights on social issues and staking his capital on a massive and bureaucratic health care plan. George W. Bush vowed to “change the tone” in Washington — which he did, by making it even more jarring and divisive.

Barack Obama ran on the implicit promise of a generational break, but it took only a few months for his advisers to recast him as the second coming of FDR’s New Deal. He spent the last two-thirds of his presidency looking for ways to govern that didn’t involve passing laws.

All of them won what amounted to an audition from the voters and then behaved as if they’d been told to rebuild the theater. In response, the voters gave each of them a second term but checked their power with an opposition Congress.

(Trump is considerably older than these presidents were, and considerably less loved in his own party, so I wouldn’t go banking on a second term just yet.)

There’s a certain element of human nature at work here. New presidents win these days because of extreme dissatisfaction in the electorate, and usually with the aid of some extenuating circumstance: Clinton with an assist from a third party, Bush after a much-disputed recount, Obama in response to an economic collapse.

But once you get elected, the tendency is to tell yourself that there was more to it than that — that people were responding not just to your outsider appeal but to the brilliance of your governing ideas too, even if you didn’t necessarily share many of them during the campaign.

Emboldened congressional leaders line up to tell you that you have a political blue sky, that the people have spoken, that they cry out for ideological boldness!

In fact, they’re mostly just crying out. And the last thing they want is more extremist policy, more partisan paralysis and endless feuding.

Which brings us back — like most things these days — to the subject of Trump. You could make a reasonable case, I guess, that Trump is fundamentally a different case. He did tell people exactly what he intended to do, in very concrete terms — build a wall, ban a bunch of Muslim immigrants, withdraw from trade deals and resort to tariffs.

Trump promised an up-in-your-grill, reactionary brand of conservatism, and nothing he’s done in this first month has failed to deliver.

Except that the election night data tells a more complicated (and more familiar) story. Sure, some segment of voters chose Trump because they loved the “Make America Great Again” riff — probably the same proportion of Republican voters who swept him to victory in the primaries. Maybe that was 30 or 35 percent of the electorate.

The voters who really provided Trump’s margin of victory, however, were less enamored. According to exit polls, about two-thirds of voters thought Trump was unqualified to be president, and another two-thirds thought he lacked the temperament for the job. Exit polls are flawed, but they aren’t that flawed.

What this means is that some significant segment of Trump voters were essentially saying: We don’t want crazy and extreme, but we just can’t bear the same old cast and narrative. So we’ll give you a shot.

These are the voters who most wanted to “drain the swamp” of political insiders, who decry the constant pettiness and the influence of big money over two parties stuck in perpetual stasis.

What has Trump given them to this point? A Cabinet plucked from Goldman Sachs and the billionaires’ club. An endless stream of childish rants. A sharply partisan agenda that says, “We won, you lost, get used to it.”

I get what Trump is thinking. You do what works for you until it doesn’t. This is the approach that got him through the primaries none of us thought he’d win and into the White House after all the experts had written him off. We keep saying you can’t get by on such a narrow, divisive appeal, and he does anyway.

He must think it’s just like the ratings for “The Apprentice.” You don’t have to win over everybody with a TV, or even half of them; you just need to have more diehard viewers than “CSI” does.

But the math changes when you’re president. You can win a nomination with 30-plus percent of the vote firmly behind you, if the field is crowded enough. You can even win a general election that way, if another chunk of voters is desperate enough to give you a try.

In the White House, though, a 35 percent approval rating is crippling. Opponents dig in. Allies run in the other direction, especially if they never liked you that much to begin with. A president who pleases only his most diehard supporters ends up isolated, his party endangered.

Trump isn’t there yet; he’s near 40 percent in most polls, making him merely the least popular new president in memory. He’s probably got about six months to start acting like a grownup before the skepticism hardens and a lot of wary Trump voters decide he’s not the right guy for the job, after all.

That’s the thing about tennis balls. They tend to bounce back.

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