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Now seems as good a time as any to predict where the Trump presidency is headed. In my last CounterPunch piece, I called for the president’s impeachment for violations of the Constitution, and as related to his fascistic Muslim ban.
But let’s be honest – there’s very little chance the Republican party will remove Trump from office. Despite the lightning rod of controversy that is “The Donald,” Republicans see unified government as too valuable for pushing through reactionary, pro-business reforms, to simply give up on this president. True, Trump’s impeachment would mean Pence’s ascendance, and the emergence of a leader who is much preferred by the Republican establishment. But the embarrassment of having to remove a sitting president for fascistic policies would be a long, drawn out process, and would greatly harm the party and its ability to govern. Since Trump seems to be here to stay, the questions become: how will his term will play out? If we can’t get rid of Trump, how do we at least limit his impact on the country?
Trump has committed himself to a scorched earth approach to “governing” via executive order and assaults on the rule of law. But at their current pace, there is little chance that he and his party are re-elected in 2018 and 2020. I believe this to be the case for several reasons. Presidents naturally see declining support over time, even those not suffering from Trump’s brazen buffoonery. Furthermore, the Republican Party’s policy proposals are deeply unpopular, and its stance on tax cuts, deregulation, and health care will hurt it among voters. There’s also “The Donald” factor to keep in mind, as Trump is a lightning rod for controversy. His penchant for scandal will only hurt the party brand even more than it already has in the coming months and years. Finally, add to all this the poverty of Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” by bringing back middle class jobs, and one has a recipe for disaster, ending in the Republican Party’s steady decline.
Donald Trump and the Threat of Time
It’s well known among presidency scholars that presidents are far less popular by the end of their terms than the beginning. There’s a well-known “honeymoon effect” that characterizes the presidency, occurring within the first year. Most presidents come into office with a job approval rating over 50 percent. They’ve made a lot of promises during the campaign, and most of the public wants them to succeed and fulfill at least some of their pledges. This relatively high approval rating steadily falls throughout a president’s term. The reason appears obvious: over time people tire of the president. Politicians make many promises and follow through with very few of them, so it’s not surprising to see job approval ratings fall over time.
A quick look at past numbers: Obama started office with a 67 percent job approval, and by the end of his first term, fell more than 20 percentage points. George W. Bush started at 62 percent, and fell to about 50 percent by the 2004 re-election, and down to just over 30 percent when he left office in 2009. George H. W. Bush came into office with the same rating as his son, but fell to under 40 percent by the 1992 election.
This pattern of decline fits pretty much every president in the post-World War II era, except for Bill Clinton, who held a 54 percent approval rating in January 1993, but finished office at 66 percent. But Clinton’s growing approval had little to do with what he did to help working Americans. The few liberal policies he pursued – raising the minimum wage and supporting the Earned Income Tax Credit, were far from enough to compensate for his assault on organized labor via NAFTA, and his war on the poor via “welfare reform” and the destruction of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Clinton had the good luck of presiding over an 8-year period conveniently positioned between two recessions (one from the early 1990s and one from the early 2000s), and at a time of low inflation and modest household income growth. This growth in income had nothing to do with Clinton policies (particularly NAFTA), which eviscerated average male incomes. Rather, it was likely the rise of dual income earners in the U.S. that accounts for the growth in family incomes during this period.
Setting aside Clinton, my point is that Trump has nowhere to go but down. He started his office with a job approval rating of 46 percent – unprecedentedly bad in modern history – and has already fallen to 42 percent just a few weeks into his term. The decline in job approval for Obama and Bush between their first month in office and their re-election averaged 16 percentage points. Using this benchmark means Trump’s approval rating may be as low as 30 percent come re-election time. Furthermore, this may be too generous a prediction. Neither Bush nor Obama were anywhere near as obnoxious in their demeanor as Trump, who has consistently gone out of his way to insult large segments of the public. Factoring in Trump’s personality, we may be talking about a president with an approval rating in the 20s come re-election time. In modern history, no president has ever been re-elected with an approval rating under 40 percent.
Health Care Reform: The Ticking Time Bomb
Few issues are closer to the hearts and pocketbooks of American voters than their health care, and Republican health care reform proposals will likely hurt the party’s re-election chances significantly. Weeks into the Trump presidency, the party is split regarding what to do with the Affordable Care Act. The most reactionary Republicans are pushing hard for repeal, even though the party has not come up with a realistic replacement. Other members of the party are worried, rightly, that they will be blamed after a repeal if tens of millions of Americans lose their health insurance and federal subsidies offered through state health insurance exchanges disappear. The Urban Institute estimates as many as 30 million Americans may lose insurance with the collapse of the exchanges and the scaling back of Medicaid (previously expanded under the ACA).
Talk about a replacement plan that will allow a smooth transition to insurance plans that cost less and provide better care, as Trump promised, was always a red herring. If Republicans failed to develop a workable alternative in the last 7 years, it’s highly unlikely they will come up with one in the next few weeks. And many Republicans are getting squirrely about the repeal. Countless calls from constituents who are anxious about losing health insurance have given Congressional Republicans the jitters about what all this means for the re-election prospects in 2018. Political scientists have long documented the practice of “pocket book voting,” in which many Americans punish the party of the president during periods marked by growing economic insecurity. Many Americans are likely to punish the Republican Party in 2018 if they lose their insurance, while facing spikes in health care premiums and other costs.
Outside the ACA repeal, Republicans are also in a tough spot regarding their support for privatizing Medicare. This proposal, the pet project of Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, has long been unpopular with the public.
Nearly 60 percent of Americans opposed Medicare privatization in 2012, including most Republicans, independents, and Democrats. Americans fear the unknown when it comes to health care. And seniors are right to oppose privatization when they will be forced to bare the cost of buying in a health care market by premium costs that will rapidly outpace the rates of health care subsidy increases provided by government. Seniors live on fixed incomes, and will be unable to endure a parasitic health care market that prioritizes ever-increasing profits over public health. Seniors are by far the most expensive demographic group to cover in the U.S., for obvious reasons, so placing responsibility into their hands for purchasing health insurance is a disaster waiting to happen. Even talk of Medicare privatization is likely to hurt Republicans moving into 2018. Retirees and near retirees vote in overwhelming numbers, and they will not forget the Republican Party’s betrayal when they enter the ballot booth.
Make America Great Again: Trump’s False Promise
Trump was elected promising to “drain the swamp” of big business power in Washington. He promised to usher in a golden age of prosperity for working Americans. But Trump was never more than a used-car salesman, his election campaign laden with cheap talk, heavy on the promises, and light on the details. Now that Trump is in office, he’s presented no realistic plan for how to create decent-paying jobs. His belligerence toward China, seen in White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s promise that the U.S. will go to war over the South China Sea, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s calls for a military blockade, threaten nuclear Armageddon. They certainly do nothing to help workers who have suffered from outsourcing.
Trump’s call for a 20 percent tax on Mexican goods entering the U.S. will do little to aid American workers. Companies relying on sweatshops in Mexico have numerous options for avoiding the tax. One way is to shift the cost of the tax to consumers, while U.S. corporations continue to benefit from low-pay Mexican sweatshop labor. A second option is to simply shift production to another country that is not subject to the 20 percent tax. Either way, there is little in Trump’s plan to guarantee jobs returning to the U.S. If Trump were willing to take the strong steps needed to rein in corporate power, perhaps progress could be made. But there is zero chance that he’s going to call for the revocation of corporate charters for companies that have outsourced jobs or propose to do so in the future, or call for a ban on goods produced in sweatshops. Even if he wanted to ban those goods, there’s no chance corporate establishment Republicans in Congress will play along.
Trump’s economic promises are important because they are one of the primary reasons he was elected. He came into office on a very short leash, with working Americans expecting that he make good on claims that he will help a middle class eviscerated by four decades of neoliberal, anti-worker reforms. He won this election based on his status as an “outsider” who could fix Washington. He is an outsider no more, and Americans are going to judge him and the party come 2018 based on their track record in office.
Even with a positive agenda that focuses on re-unionization and a living wage, making significant headway toward restoring the middle class in the two-to-four-year window between elections is daunting. But this goal is all but impossible without progressive policies aimed at helping working Americans. Americans saw significant growth in inequality and declining wages throughout most of Obama’s presidency. And the vast majority of new jobs created under Obama – 94 percent – were low-pay, temporary, or contingent positions. Expect these trends to continue and intensify under Trump. By passing a multi-trillion-dollar tax cut plan for the wealthy, Republicans will greatly increase inequality, while doing nothing for working families. Many Americans vote based on their economic experiences, punishing the party in power in times of growing economic insecurity. Expect this practice to continue in 2018 and 2020.
“The Donald” Factor
Trump’s presidency has all the makings of a slow-motion heart attack. Every incendiary twitter post sends liberals into cardiac arrest. As polls have long shown, many conservatives ignore Trump’s absurdities and bigotry, since he “speaks their language” by adopting reactionary and bigoted stances on various social issues. But Trump’s callous attacks on large numbers of Americans will probably take a toll on his approval rating among “independent” and “moderate” swing voters who do not identify as racists, sexists, or xenophobes, but who found Trump’s populist economic rhetoric appealing. Trump goes out of his way to insult just about anyone and everyone he can. This is no way to govern a country, and much of middle America will grow tired of his bullshit promises and shock politics in the coming months and years. Trump certainly has redefined the boundaries of “acceptable” discourse for the worse, but even his brand of shouting and tweeting blatant absurdities will only remain novel for so long.
It would be naïve to say that Trump’s brand and popularity will not decline based simply on future scandals. U.S. or foreign intelligence agencies may continue to derail the Trump presidency via their own attacks – substantiated or not. Trump’s black-hole finances may come back to haunt him, creating constitutional conflicts of interest related to his business profits and obligations as president. As details about Trump’s income are revealed moving forward, the president may find himself in the middle of a media storm of corruption charges. Finally, one should expect future scandals simply by way of “Donald being Donald.” Whether future controversies involve revelations of racism (there are still countless hours of “The Apprentice” footage left unchecked), unwanted sexual advances, or other types of lewd “locker room talk,” it’s likely that this presidency will be one for the record books in terms of the number of tabloid scandals. Trump is a shameless reality TV star and vulgarian, and we should expect more of this from him moving forward.
The Sleeping Giant
It’s unclear how much more damage Trump’s Muslim ban can hurt his approval ratings. If there are people out there who don’t know Trump is an Islamophobe, future news stories about it are unlikely to have much effect. But Trump’s backhanded attacks on minority groups – including Hispanics, African Americans, Muslims and others, are likely to hurt the party come 2018 and 2020. Political scientists have long spoken of “disturbance theory,” in which citizens awaken from their political apathy in the face of assaults on their privileges and rights. People are more likely to act against political repression when confronted with a blatant threat staring them in the face. For many Americans – Trump’s presidency is just such a threat. And the mobilization against Trump is likely to matter greatly in the future, not just in terms of contributing to sagging approval ratings, but in galvanizing larger turnouts for future elections.
The future is impossible to predict with any precision. But considering the above concerns, it seems likely the Republican Party will lose control of Congress come 2018, and will probably lose the White House in 2020. Short of some major or catastrophic terror attack, Trump’s approval ratings will continue to fall. At the current rate, I won’t be surprised if I’m hearing pundits talk about a lame duck president before the end of Trump’s first term.
Trump is doing everything in his power to gift wrap the presidency and congress for the Democrats. But the current party leadership isn’t in much of a position to capitalize on it. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi rule over a tired, old, crumbling party that has faded into irrelevance. These “leaders” can do little more than trip over themselves on their journey into oblivion. The party’s done nothing to call for impeachment against this president for his lawless attack on immigrants, or to condemn Trump for his blatant and elitist class war policies. They’ve marketed no coherent agenda or alternative progressive policy plan as an alternative to Trump’s politics. Rather, Pelosi is as tone deaf as ever. In a January town hall meeting, she absurdly claimed the Democrats are opposed to Wall Street. It was amusing to watch the audience react with derision and laughter against a party that even non-partisan fact checking groups recognize has long received the lion’s share of Wall Street campaign donations.
The United States is marked by a crisis of governance. Neither political party has articulated a vision for how to rein in corporate power, create an economy that works for working Americans, or build a government that protects the needy and disadvantaged. Republican’s reactionary turn provides an opportunity for a political alternative that rejects neoliberal capitalism. Ultimately, it’s up to the public to articulate such a vision if they desire an alternative to the status quo.