Donald Trump won the presidency on a wave of popular sentiment against the ruling class. That sentiment, more than any individual, was the 2016 elections’ principal protagonist. His presidency’s fortunes depend on identification with that wave, and on enhancing it, quite as much as did his election.
Asked early in 2015 who would win the election I replied: “the person who runs on the platform ‘Who the [bleep] do they think they are?’ Then, on July 27 I wrote: “Donald Trump leapt atop other contenders for the Republican presidential nomination when he acted on the primordial fact in American public life today most Americans distrust, fear, are sick and tired of, the elected, appointed, and bureaucratic officials who rule over us, as well as their cronies in the corporate, media, and academic world.”
Mr. Trump’s campaign did much to discourage potential voters and said little about what he would do as president. But, I noted: “Trump’s barest hints about what he opposes (never mind proposes) have had such [great] effect because they accord with what the public has already concluded.” In short, Mr. Trump did not create hostility to the ruling class: he personified it.
Mr. Trump attacked their icons’ integrity, and goaded opponents into screaming that he is unfit for polite company. But this only threw Br’er Rabbit into the proverbial briar patch. The polls showed that many disliked Mr. Trump. But they did not ask the only question that counted: Do you want to stay under your current rulers, or are you willing to take a chance with someone who despises them as much as you do?
Mr. Trump won because the voters’ belief that he was on their side trumped doubts and aversions about him personally.
By the same token, Mr. Trump’s popularity or job approval today mean less for his presidency than does people’s judgment about whose side of America’s great sociopolitical divide his presidency is on.
But relying on identification with his constituencies is more of a problem for the president than it was for the candidate. His campaign jest that they would stand by him even were he to shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue showed that Mr. Trump may be unusually liable to the human temptation to believe that people appreciate you for who you are. Wrong. They care for you only insofar as you do well by them and the things they care about.
Although Mr. Trump did not rise by championing a set of proposals regarding issues and was never a conservative, much less a religious one, he identified with certain parts of the conservative constituency so firmly (if ever so generally) that departure from those constituencies and their issues would leave him without political identity. Two examples suffice.
Mr. Trump’s rallies chanted “build the Wall!” and “deport illegals!” reflecting anger at the sort of immigration America has experienced since 1965. Citizenship for illegals is wildly unpopular, except in Washington. The left’s political strategy rests on importing clients and giving them citizenship. And yet Mr. Trump has not begun to build the “big, beautiful wall,” and has indicated readiness to accept “a path to citizenship” for many if not most illegals.
Some four-fifths of evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics and orthodox Jews voted for Mr. Trump despite his sketchy religiosity, his three marriages and countless dalliances, his progressive social circle, as well as previous endorsement of abortion and warmth to homosexuality. These constituencies daily suffer efforts by judges, bureaucrats, and corporate America to push them to society’s margins through Political Correctness.
They reached out to Mr. Trump because he seemed to delight in violating PC’s strictures. Yet under his presidency Silicon Valley’s arbiters of social media increasingly censor conservatives from the internet. Judicial, bureaucratic and corporate attacks on freedom of speech are on the rise. President Trump was even intimidated to sign a Joint Congressional resolution that identifies the conservative side of American life with political violence and urges people to use their positions to combat it.
Regarding immigration as well as freedom of speech and religion, Mr. Trump’s presidency speaks the same language as his candidacy. It also touts its substantive achievements in these areas — mostly rescinding some of the Obama administration’s egregious impositions. Mr. Trump’s temptation has been to continue speaking in ways that identify him with America’s anti-establishmentarians even as he barely dents the establishment’s prerogatives.
The ruling class’ feverish allegations against him reduce the political price for giving in to this temptation. The areas in which he has made big innovations, regulatory policy and taxes, are of lesser interest to his major constituencies. They did not vote for him to be governed by a faction of Wall Street different from the ones that ruled under Obama/Bush. These constituencies love his words, but experience a different reality.
Seemingly startled awake by how disastrous it would be to violate his voters’ credulity irreparably, Donald Trump periodically draws back. It is a marvel that he has maintained this precarious balance for a year.
• Angelo M. Codevilla is professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University.