Trump has never been worse — but his approval is surging. Why?

Damon Linker
·7 min read

My estimation of President Trump has never been lower than it is right now. And his approval rating has never been higher.

That disjunct has become familiar to lots of liberal-leaning journalists, intellectuals, and academics over the past three years. Though this hasn't kept plenty of them from trying to deny or explain it away. Unwaveringly convinced that the president and his party are inept, corrupt, ignorant, and brutally callous, they have written and published article after article under headlines like, "This is the end of the Trump presidency."

We saw this when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. It happened again in the months surrounding the midterm elections, when Republicans took a big hit in Congress and lost control of the House. The headlines reappeared repeatedly before and during Trump's impeachment trial and subsequent acquittal. And we've seen it in the midst of a global pandemic, the seriousness of which the president at first dismissed, then grudgingly conceded, and now seems eager to deny once again, this time in the name of "restarting the economy."

Over and over again, those who report on and analyze politics at close range have documented the president's lies, exposed his schemes to enrich himself, taken note of his errors and their consequences, and highlighted his incompetence and cruelty — and at every step of the way they have assumed this would make a political difference. But it hasn't.

Maybe it's time to recognize that it won't.

Accepting this is hard. Journalists, academics, and intellectuals tend to be idealists. They went into this line of work not because they wanted to be rich but because they wanted to make the world a better place in some way. This doesn't mean their ideas on improving things would always have positive outcomes if they were enacted, or that their favored policy proposals deserve to take priority in our public life. Not at all. But it does mean they tend to assume that most people will recoil from outright lies, deception, malice, injustice, sleaze, and thuggish imbecility when it is exposed and demonstrated to them.

But maybe that isn't true.

Maybe most of what has been written about the president and his party in the mainstream media is true — and yet it won't mean that this produces "the end of the Trump presidency" at all. Maybe enough Americans in enough states just don't care. Or maybe enough of them do care but in an affirmative way. They like politics conducted like pro-wrestling. They smile at the vulgarity. They approve of a president who acts and thinks like a mob boss and prefer a politics of clientalistic corruption to an administrative state of well-trained experts and bureaucrats who aspire to scrupulous competence and ideological neutrality (while sometimes falling short of achieving it). Maybe instead of responding to evidence that Trump is a clownish demagogue, they respond by saying, "Good, and thanks for noticing."

Maybe they like these things because they're Republicans and Republicans benefit from the Republican president ruthlessly pursuing policies that Republicans want. (Every faction of the GOP has enjoyed victories and gains during the Trump administration.) Maybe they also like these things because they follow politics for the entertainment and the Trump presidency is fun. He spews rhetorical sulfuric acid at their political and cultural enemies, and he does it with relish and humor. And the victims of his vitriol typically respond by flying off into an indignant, self-important, and self-defeating rage. What could be politically sweeter than that?

Now let me be clear: This is bad. Very bad. It means that a large and politically potent segment of the American public is both actively contemptuous of expertise, specialized knowledge, and the effort to combat political corruption when it benefits them, and beyond the reach of being persuaded otherwise.

It will of course be even worse if they happen to get their president re-elected.

In that case, America's relative decline in the world will not only continue apace (as it almost surely would under any president at this point) but be managed terribly. We'll still be able to bully weaker countries to get our way for a while. But anything resembling the "American century" will be over and done. We'll be a declining hegemon in a world increasingly dominated by rising regional powers while being led by a carnival barker who takes his cues entirely from rabblerousing media personalities who know and care nothing about the wider world. Having turned ourselves into global laughingstocks, other countries will increasingly go their own way, bypassing the United States on trade and alliances and other international pursuits as we slowly founder.

At home our country will be marked by crumbling infrastructure and a tottering system of health-care provision to an aging and unhealthy population. Our government will be sagging under a crushing debt burden, our former efforts to soften the blows of capitalism's creative destruction being dismantled along with the regulatory regime that sought to protect citizens against externalities of corporate greed. Our courts will be dominated by right-wing Social Darwinists, with civil liberties in retreat and our public life polluted by a miasma of lies and disinformation designed to protect the powerful from oversight. Meanwhile "red" America will cheer it on, believing our national greatness has been restored and wildly entertained by nasty presidential tweets trolling the libs, while Trump and his party actively screw the disloyal "blue" states, enriching themselves along the way.

In such a pitch-black prophesy, what's the opposition to do?

Of course it still needs to try and win national elections. But if such efforts fail, one option would be for it to continue doing what it has for these past three years — allowing itself to be continually provoked into lashing out, living in a fantasy that voters can be persuaded to eject the ringmaster from his place at the center of the circus, and giving in to conspiracies to explain how we got here.

But there's another way to respond — and that is to disconnect from the spectacle. Use America's federalist system to circle the wagons, creating an archipelago of cities and suburbs that seek to govern themselves the way the country as a whole attempted to do through the middle decades of the 20th century: with a commitment to helping those less fortunate and protecting the vulnerable from harm, to bringing policy expertise to bear on solving common problems, and to building a system of public institutions that aspire to fairness for all.

This is really no solution and certainly nothing to romanticize. It would be a concession to our civic brokenness, a giving in to how divided we are as a polity, and how disinclined to find common ground. In that respect it could well intensify our divisions further. It would also demonstrate beyond any doubt that the time for grand, ambitious national projects — like fighting climate change in a systematic way or overhauling the health-care system to make it more equitable — is behind us. The most that liberals could hope for in such a scenario would be regional accomplishments that may well feel like little more than well-managed defeats.

But really, what's the alternative when contemplating the future of the center-left in a country that re-elects Donald Trump to the presidency? Continuing to jump up and down, pointing at the president while screaming, "Look at how bad he is!," while nearly half the country rolls its eyes and turns its backs in indifference?

Wake-up American liberals: We have no one to save but ourselves.

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