A year into the Trump era, President Trump is living up to his advance billing as a “black swan” event for American politics — disrupting everything he touches. He has opened divisions and brought chaos to both parties, and the turmoil is not going to abate with the midterm election next year, no matter what the result. The GOP may never be the same, while a lurch further to the populist left by Democrats might be a formula for additional electoral disaster. The culture wars have gone thermonuclear, with institutions such as the NFL suddenly embroiled in heightened political controversy.
Trump’s critics on both left and right may claim vindication from the latest public opinion polls showing Trump’s personal approval rating at 38% or less, the lowest ever for a first-year president. This is an abysmal rating at a time of accelerating economic growth, near-full employment, rising consumer and business confidence, and no major foreign crisis or war under way.
But given the intra-party divisions, lack of legislative progress in Congress, and the general tumult around the White House, perhaps it is more remarkable that Trump’s approval rating is as high as it is. This reflects the solidity of his base, which remains as enthusiastic for Trump today as it was during the campaign.
In assessing Trump’s prospects, let’s keep in mind that Trump’s personal approval rating on election day was nearly as negative. Last year, Americans voted for someone they didn’t much like, reflecting the even greater dislike of Hillary Clinton and the desire for a change of direction in Washington. Change is what we got.
In assessing Trump’s accomplishments, let’s not get too distracted by his unconventional conduct. This hitherto ideologically unmoored man has set in motion an administration arguably more conservative than Ronald Reagan’s. While the Congress controlled by his adopted party remains gridlocked, Trump is rolling back regulations and a number of the Obama administration’s most controversial achievements, including the internal structure of Obamacare and the Clean Power Plan. His foreign policy resets look increasingly sure-footed. His judicial nominees are uniformly conservative. It is inconceivable that any of the other leading Republican candidates from the 2016 cycle would have governed as boldly as Trump has.
Trump’s rhetorical and behavioral recklessness — his government-by-tweet — still make it hard to discern whether there is a method to his madness, or whether he is just going with the populist flow he helped unleash. He has yet to be tested with a serious crisis, where showmanship and bluster count for nothing. Aristotle wrote that “rule shows the man,” but what we’re seeing so far is still confusing.
Steven F. Hayward is senior resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.