A constant theme of media criticism of Donald Trump is that his approval rating (currently 42% according to Gallup) at this stage in his Presidency is the lowest amongst US Presidents.
This is to repeat a mistake made during the Presidential election. It is a mistake to think of Donald Trump as an unpopular President, just as it was a mistake to think of him as an unpopular candidate for the Presidency during the election. A far more correct way of describing him is as a deeply polarising President, just as during the election he was a deeply polarising candidate.
That this is so is shown by the latest opinion from Gallup. It shows that approval for Trump amongst Republican voters stands at 88% (just short of the 89% at the time of his inauguration) but that approval for him amongst Democrats stands at just 10%. Trump’s approval amongst independents is currently – according to Gallup 38% – lower than his peak of 42% at the time of his inauguration (though not calamitously so) but higher than he was polling amongst independents at the start of February.
Moreover 62% of Americans polled say Trump is keeping his promises, 59% think he is a strong leader, and 53% think he is carrying out the changes the country needs.
On the key issue of the economy Americans are evenly split, with 48% approving of Trump’s handling of the economy against 47% who disapprove.
Donald Trump is one of those exceptionally rare individuals who seeks to achieve his objectives by deliberately seeking to polarise. It is how he won first the Republican nomination and then the Presidency against professional politicians whose instinct is to ‘reach out’ and seek consensus.
The result is that Trump arouses roughly equal amounts of passionate support and of passionate opposition, which whilst it depresses his overall approval rating masks the solid support he has from his electoral base.
This has important political implications. It means that the Republican party in Congress is in no position to stand up against the President or move against him since were it to do so it would risk antagonising its electoral base. That essentially rules out any idea of impeachment, at least for the foreseeable future.
As for the media attacks on Trump, not only do they not seem to be doing him no damage, but if anything they seem to be hardening support for him from his electoral base.
In fact the media campaign against Trump, by amplifying (unproven) claims of Russian involvement in his election, has had the paradoxical result of causing Russian President Putin’s approval rating amongst Republican voters to rise. It now stands at 32% whereas in 2015 it was just 12%. Conversely President Putin’s approval rating amongst Democrat voters has fallen from 15% in 2015 to 10% now.
These are early days in Donald Trump’s Presidency. Ultimately his success or failure – as is the case with most Presidents – will probably depend on what happens to the economy, though a spectacular foreign policy success or failure might also swing things decisively either for him or against him. However the Democrats need to think carefully about the risks of their own strategy. By opposing Trump so fanatically they are setting themselves for Trump to hold onto his support by blaming the Democrats’ obstruction if things go wrong.
In 1948 Harry Truman was unexpectedly re-elected by running against a Congress controlled by the opposition party, who in that case were the Republicans. If they are not careful the Democrats could find themselves in 2020 in the same position.