President Trump is, without a doubt, the least popular and most divisive American President of modern history. He has, since inauguration, never had majority support in America. He was elected by a minority and, in the RealClearPolitics polling average, his first day in office was the only one in which his approval rating (by one tenth of a percent) was higher than his disapproval rating. His approval rating currently stands at 39.3%, and has been around 40% or so for most of his term in office. Similarly, his disapproval rating currently stands at 56.4%, and has been over 50% every day since March 17, less than two months into his term.
Those type of polling numbers usually would suggest horrific losses upcoming for the President’s party in the 2020 mid-term elections, barring some huge development (and it would have to be huge, few people are neutral about Trump – most have already made up their minds about him). And that could still prove to be the case. Republicans certainly had little to celebrate in this year’s off-elections.
But I’m not so certain.
The reason is that I believe many people who do not approve of Trump would still vote for him, and definitely would still vote for the party he leads.
A lot has been written about Trump voters, some of it very perceptive and some not so much. Everyone wants to understand why any sane person would vote for him. Why the nice neighbor down the street did. Why Uncle Bob did. Why people who call themselves Christian did.
The simple truth is that there is no easy explanation. People are complicated, and arrive at decisions in very different ways, not all of which strike others as being entirely rational, but which make sense to them.
Here is my take, based on the many conversations I have personally had with Trump voters, and on the work of many who have studied the issue and written about it. Basically, I think Trump voters come in many different varieties, or flavors, if you will, and defy any single identity. Many of the categories overlap, and many of the people who voted for him may fall into more than one category. Some of these categories are personally committed to him, but many others are not. Most will still vote for him again, though, or vote for others who support him.
These are my categories:
1. Party loyalists: These are people who are staunchly Republican, and who would never ever vote any other way. Many do not approve of Trump personally, and do no even support many of his policies. However, they believe that it is better to have him in office than any conceivable Democrat because some of their priorities have a better chance of being enacted under him than under a Democrat. They hope that he can be controlled and manipulated, and that the damage he does will be repairable.
2. Single issue voters: Another key part of the traditional Republican coalition, and very loyal to the party because it best reflects their stance on the one issue that determines their vote. Usually this issue is either guns or abortion, with some gay marriage mixed in. All other issues are relatively unimportant to them in comparison to the one they care most fiercely about. They frequently disagree with Trump on many other issues, but those issues do not determine their vote. He has their support so long as he says the right things on their issue, or so long as they believe his opponents stand against them on that issue.
3. Evangelical Christians/culture warriors: This is another key and increasingly dependable base of support for the Republican party – Christian conservatives and traditionalists who see the diminution of privilege as persecution and fear changes in the world. For this group more than any other, the decision to support Trump has come at great cost. Most know (even if they do not admit) that Trump is unworthy of their support and does not share their values, and that their support for him leaves them vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy. However, they are unwilling to admit their mistake and still cling to him desperately, with their excuses for his behavior ringing ever more hollow.
4. Angry Men/Nihilists: People who are angry with what they perceive as the state of the country, or with their place in it. Life has dealt them a raw deal, in their minds, and somebody other than themselves has to be to blame. It must be the fault of immigrants, or minorities, or Democrats, or the government, or the UN, or the Tooth Fairy. It certainly can’t be their own fault, of course. They are mad about it and they want to burn the whole thing down. To make others suffer as they see themselves as having suffered. Trump is their guy and they will be with him to the end. They don’t support him despite the fact he is nasty and obnoxious. They support him because he is nasty and obnoxious. They support him because he drives everyone who they think has ever looked down on them in life crazy. They are perfectly happy to watch the country burn if it means those people get their comeuppance.
5. Latent Racists: These people almost certainly do not consider themselves racist. They have never worn a white hood and probably are disgusted by those who do. But they are likely to us words like “thug” to describe African-Americans. Their Facebook pages are full of memes attacking individual African-Americans. They claim to honor Martin Luther King and other past heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, while harshly criticizing all the civil rights leaders of today. They think the Confederate flag is a symbol of regional pride rather than racism, and the Civil War was about state’s rights rather than slavery. They view immigrants as dangerous and very different from their own immigrant ancestors. They see America as under threat from people who look and sound different from them, who they say “don’t share our values”. They yearn for an imaginary past in which things were better, or at least better for people like them. White people.
6. Open Racists: One of the truly appalling things that has happened since Trump emerged as a serious political figure is the normalization of open racism. Hate crimes are up, and Nazis are marching openly in our streets. Recruiting by white nationalist and other hate groups is surging. Punching Nazis is no longer considered good old-fashioned American fun by a shocking portion of our population. Trump himself has said and done many racist things as a candidate and as President that would have instantly ruined other politicians in the past, but he survives them, and his supporters continue to make increasingly lame excuses. Trump has, frequently belatedly and with little of the passion he reserves for his real enemies, denounced hate groups, but it seems to be with a wink and a nod. It is no coincidence that all the major racist hate groups endorsed him and celebrated his victory. They know their own.
I will make no attempt to guess which percentage of his voters and supporters fall into each category. I think it is complicated and that many voters fall into more than one category, and some few probably fall into none of them, but rather have their own reasons to vote for him.
I do hope more of them will turn away from him by next years midterms, and even more by 2020. It would make me feel better about the nice neighbor down the street and Uncle Bob.