As his presidential campaign gathered momentum in early 2016,
declared that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and I wouldn’t lose voters.” At the time, this was regarded as memorable hyperbole, but subsequent events—capped by his meeting with
—suggest it is closer to literal truth.
Though no one would have called President Trump “restrained” during his first year in office, he has upped the ante in 2018 by challenging established arrangements at home and abroad. From immigration and trade to NATO, North Korea and Russia, the assumptions that have guided American policy in the postwar era have been cast aside.
Many of Mr. Trump’s initiatives lack public support. Despite his breathtaking embrace of Mr. Putin in Helsinki, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 5% of Americans have a positive view of the Russian president. They disapprove of Mr. Trump’s handling of U.S.-Russian relations by a margin of 2 to 1. By a similar margin, Americans believe Mr. Trump’s tariffs will raise costs and hurt average citizens. About 6 in 10 Americans also believe that immigration helps rather than hurts the U.S., despite Mr. Trump’s hard-line policies. And Americans don’t share Mr. Trump’s contempt for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; they support the alliance by a 3-to-1 margin.
What’s more, Mr. Trump’s disruptive efforts haven’t yielded notable success. Despite his insistence that trade wars are easy to win, China is pushing back with tariffs of its own, and the lost agricultural sales are beginning to hurt America’s heartland. U.S. trading partners in the Europe and Asia are banding together in new multilateral agreements that leave the U.S. in the cold. North Korean leader
Kim Jong Un
is resisting U.S. efforts to translate his vague promises at the Singapore summit into meaningful progress toward denuclearization. NATO members have pledged only marginal increases to their defense contributions. And the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” stance on immigration enforcement led to the cul-de-sac of family separations, drawing widespread condemnation at home and abroad.
On Mr. Trump’s most unpopular policies, there is a big gap between Republicans and the rest of the electorate. Whereas two-thirds of Americans opposed family separation as a method of immigration enforcement, 55% of Republicans supported it, according to a June 2018 Quinnipiac poll. While only 26% of Americans approve of the president’s handling of U.S. relations with Russia, 53% of Republicans do.
But these narrow majorities of support for specific policies are dwarfed by overwhelming Republican backing—among the highest levels ever recorded—for the president’s overall performance in office and for the president himself. Moreover, Mr. Trump has managed to increase the intensity of support he enjoys. Just three months ago, 22% of voters strongly approved of his job performance. Today, this figure stands at 29%. His personal favorability has also intensified: In April 21% of voters were “very positive” about him, compared with 28% today.
There are three reasons, I believe, why President Trump’s approval has remained rock-solid in the face of unending controversies and policy fiascoes. First, the economy has kicked into higher gear, spurred by tax cuts, deregulation and Republicans’ now-familiar willingness to enact large budget deficits into policy even as they denounce them in principle.
Second, President Trump has kept faith with the 46% of Americans who voted for him in 2016. He gave economic conservatives the tax cuts and deregulatory policies he advocated during the campaign. Social conservatives have gotten the judicial nominees they were promised, along with policy changes in areas from transgender bathrooms to abortion and religious liberty. And the populist conservatives who put Mr. Trump over the top in key Midwestern states have found an unswerving champion of the nationalist policies—on trade, immigration and putting America first—that energized them during the campaign.
The third reason transcends policy. In Donald Trump, dissatisfied Americans have found a man who resents cultural elites as much as they do, who is as dismissive of convention as they would like to be, and, above all, who fights constantly, retreats rarely, seldom apologizes, and takes every setback as an opportunity to renew the unending struggle.
In a speech at Madison Square Garden three days before the 1936 election,
Franklin D. Roosevelt
described the powerful interests arrayed against him. “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today,” he declared. “They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” Mr. Trump shares this view, I believe, and so do his supporters. It is thrilling to have a leader who not only promotes your interests but also validates your passions.
Appeared in the July 25, 2018, print edition.