Donald Trump has always reveled in being an outsider. His candidacy was a sharp rebuke to the elites, the establishment and status quo. Instead of relying on tired and dysfunctional institutions to bring change, Trump boasted at the GOP convention, “I alone can fix” the challenges facing the country.
But, a year later, the “I alone” candidacy has morphed into a lonely presidency. He and his adopted party have become more estranged. Never one to turn the other cheek, Trump continues to lash out at anyone – including members of his own party – who criticizes him. A recent New York Times story detailed building frustrations and something of a cold war between Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Even members of his own cabinet have found ways to publicly distance themselves from the president over his statements on Charlottesville. Ousted senior advisor Steve Bannon has returned to conservative media outlet Breitbart to wage open war on the “establishment” in Congress and the “globalists” within the Administration.
But, Trump’s not just losing support and standing with the so-called Washington Republican establishment, he’s also losing support among GOP voters.
The most recent Gallup polling pegged the president’s approval rating with Republican voters at 78 percent – a seven point drop since June.
That the party is struggling to stay unified shouldn’t be that surprising. Ever since Trump captured the GOP nomination we wondered if the party could ever unite behind a candidate who openly challenged so much of the GOP orthodoxy on issues like trade, entitlement spending and foreign policy.
However, what’s straining the party today is driven more by personality than policy.
New polling by Pew Research Center finds that while 69 percent of Republicans agree with President Trump on “many” or “all/nearly all” issues facing the country, just 34 percent say they “like” the way Donald Trump conducts himself as president. Almost half (46 percent) of Republicans say they have “mixed feelings” about Trump’s conduct as president, while 19 percent say they “don’t like” it at all.
I witnessed this strain first hand at a focus group this week in Pittsburgh conducted by Peter Hart for Emory University. Of the twelve voters in the room, six had voted for Trump. At least two of them were “reluctant” Trump voters who admitted publicly that they chose Trump as a lesser of two evils. Even so, not one of the six showed any enthusiasm for the President. All admitted to being disappointed in him in some way. But, their disappointments were about personnel and personality, not policy. As one voter (I didn’t catch his name at the time), said, “the messenger is overwhelming the message.”
“I thought he’d be a quick learner,” said David, “and that as a business person he’d pick top notch people for the jobs – that hasn’t happened.” Brian and Christina were disappointed in his lack of presidential temperament. “I hope and I pray that he’ll make a paradigm shift,” said Tony. “He hasn’t lost my vote, but I hope he makes changes to right the ship.” These voters, Hart noted in a debrief for reporters, were willing to forgive Trump’s behavior as a candidate because he was running against Hillary. “When he was attacking her, he was seen as a warrior fighting against what people saw as the enemy. As President, however, he is supposed to represents us.” Instead, notes Hart, what has defined Trump’s presidency thus far is not “us” but “him.”
This, of course, is the fundamental challenge to the President. While the Pittsburgh voters want to see a different, more restrained and focused President, many of his core supporters want more of the same. And, Trump, of course, is more than happy to give it to them.
In the Pew poll, a"little over half (54 percent) of those who approve of the job Trump is doing as president cite aspects of his personality or approach as what they like about Trump’s job performance. As one 57-year old woman who approves of Trump put it: “He’s a fighter and loves America as much as I do.”
There may be something of a silver lining in this Trump-Republican party divide for GOP members of Congress up in 2018. As Trump distances himself from the party, it may allow them distance from him and his sinking approval rating numbers. Even some Democrats worry that what has worked in past campaigns – “Congressman X is just like (Fill in the blank unpopular president)” – will fall flat this time around. After all, no one is just like Donald Trump. This is why Democrats need to be able to tie GOPers to unpopular policy – i.e. the House-passed health care bill – and not just Trump’s personality. Even that, however, may be a challenge. Those who dislike or disapprove of the president also cite personality over policy. Among those who disapproved of the President, the Pew poll found, 32 percent cited his "peronality/conduct" (with 12 percent citing temperament specifically) as the thing that concerns them the most about how Trump is handling his job, another 19 percent chose "intelligence/competence" as their top concern and a combined 17 percent picked "Twitter" or "Dishonest." Just 25 percent of disapprovers picked "policies" as the thing that concerned them the most. In other words, by more than a 2-1 margin (68 percent to 25 percent), even those who disapprove of the president say it's his personal conduct, not his policies, that worry them the most.
Can Trump ever re-unite Republicans behind him? Sure. As I wrote the other week, despite Trump’s struggles, he still has pretty decent approval ratings on the economy. When asked what issue they were most confident Trump could do well, even the skeptical voters in Pittsburgh said “rebuild the economy.”
But, that is going to require a level of discipline and restraint and focus that, thus far, the president has not shown.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais