“I think he’s doing good. I think he’s what we needed to shake things up in this country.” “The stock market’s liking it. He’s doing well for my 401K.” “He’s trying. Nothing’s going to happen overnight, but he’s sure as hell trying.” The experts and commentators will have plenty to say about the year since Donald Trump was elected, but these remarks from voters who backed the president last November may well say a lot more about where he stands politically than the headline numbers, some of which put his approval ratings at a record low.
Last year my research team spent seven weeks in the US listening to Americans as they weighed their decision (observing, among other things, the striking parallels between Trump and Brexit). Returning last week to Wisconsin and Nevada, we found robust support for the President among those who had put him in office. He remains their guy, doing his best to change the way things are done in Washington and to put ordinary Americans at the heart of the political agenda, to the evident horror and dismay of those who have long profited from the status quo. They believe the media and the political establishment are out to get him, and attacks on the president – readily interpreted as assaults on the kind of people who put him in office – only serve to intensify his support.
The reaction to Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia demonstrates the point neatly. Trump’s opponents tend to believe it is only a matter of time before collusion is proved, but for his supporters, the whole affair is nothing more than a “witch hunt”: a plot by the establishment to discredit the President with any dirt they can dig up, Russia-related or otherwise. Their suspicion was confirmed by the news that investigators have been looking at the protagonists’ tax returns: “what’s that got to do with anything?” asked one. “That’s what’s going to happen. If they can’t get him on what they indicted him for, they’ll get him for something else. Like with Al Capone.”
As well as an improving economy (which even many anti-Trump voters acknowledged, even if they were disinclined to give him the credit), the President’s supporters cited some achievements: rolling back what they regarded as damaging regulations, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, acting on the promise to bring back jobs to America, and even, some believed, taking tentative steps towards building the Mexican border wall. At the same time, there was real frustration that things were not moving faster. No major legislation had passed, and the central pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare remained unfulfilled.
But while opponents usually put this down to the President and his chaotic governing style, those who voted for him last year overwhelmingly believed the blame lay elsewhere: principally, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and especially with the Congressional Republicans. He “rubs them the wrong way,” Trump supporters argued, so “they’re never going to allow him to focus on any kind of agenda whatever… There’s going to be a roadblock at every intersection.” They were quite clear about why this was happening: “If I was a hifalutin’ Republican Congressperson or Senator, I wouldn’t want to have to rebuild everything we worked together to build behind the scenes because this guy wants to tear it all apart.” None of this bodes well for incumbents in next year’s midterm elections, including supposedly recalcitrant Republicans facing a primary challenge from within their own party.
For those on the other side, everything wrong with the Trump presidency was encapsulated in his Twitter timeline: “He’s supposed to be our leader, and he’s belittling people and calling them names. I mean, even if my kids did that, I would be ashamed.” Many of his supporters, too, found his Twitter antics regrettable: “Any time he’s attacked he’s got to hit back. He can’t help himself. Which is an awesome personality to have if you’re a quarterback of a football team or, you know, a boxer.” Always having to have the last word was not very presidential: “he’s almost like the other twelve year-old in the playground.”
Others vigorously defended his approach: since the media is “not giving him a fifty-fifty chance to talk”, if he ceases to tweet “nobody knows what he’s thinking.” And as another asked, perhaps tellingly, “why do you have to hold him to a different standard than you do any other celebrity?”
But for some we spoke to, particularly African American and Hispanic voters, the president’s choice of words on Twitter and elsewhere were not simply a matter of decorum but had real consequences closer to home. Where people might once have made remarks behind closed doors, they felt they had been given “permission” to vent prejudice in the open: “Where I work, I can tell now from maybe a year ago, the way people interact with me and they look at me different. I had a guest call me a ‘Boy’, and I’ve been working at my hotel for seven years. Even my director, he said ‘oh can you tell that black boy to…’.” Since Trump had been President, one man remarked, “I just feel like we’re back in the 50s and 60s. I just feel like we started over.” They often observed that by stoking racially-charged controversies like that of NFL players “taking a knee” in response to the national anthem, Trump was rallying his electoral base: “Smart guy. I mean, he is a smart man. I hate it when people say Donald Trump’s stupid, or he doesn’t know what he’s doing. This is very calculated. It just looks stupid.”
These were by no means the only criticisms of Donald Trump as President: “disastrous,” “monstrous,” “an embarrassment,” “divisive,” and “unethical in every possible way” were among the others. But strikingly, these nearly always came from people who had never liked him in the first place. As importantly, most of them were gloomy about the prospects for displacing him. The Democrats, they said, seemed tired and devoid of new ideas or leaders.
A year since the result that shocked the world, the President’s numbers don’t look good – but numbers go up and down, and the people who put him in the White House so far seem prepared to give him credit for his successes while absolving him of blame for any failures. Meanwhile, those who can’t wait to see the back of him wait forlornly for their champion.
If Donald Trump had been on the road with us last week, I think he’d had have been pretty happy with what he heard.