Presidential candidate Donald Trump has been slumping in the polls since the Republican and Democratic conventions in late July. Real Clear Politics shows him losing in every national poll it lists as having been conducted in August and late July. Similarly, state polls show Trump facing an uphill battle, with some polls indicating that traditionally Republican states like Georgia and Utah are not sure wins for Trump.
If you are a Trump supporter, there is good reason to sweat.
Yet the enthusiastic support Trump amassed in the course of the primary season, and the large animated rallies Trump continues to attract, are unmistakable. He may have atrocious favorability ratings for a general election candidate, but the respected data site FiveThirtyEight still gives Trump a nonzero probability of winning the election (Hillary Clinton is still largely favored to win).
Moreover, there is the possibility of an ‘October Surprise’ about Hillary Clinton, given threats by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to release a new batch of emails that may prove damaging to Clinton’s reputation. And just this week, a judge ordered the timely disclosure of approximately 15,000 previously unreleased emails discovered by the FBI in its recent investigation. ‘Timely’ could mean before Election Day in November. Assuming Green Party candidate Jill Stein can peel off Bernie supporters from the Hillary camp, and factoring in Trump’s appeal to anti-trade sentiments in the Rust Belt and nativistic impulses among those who gripe about illegal immigration, and Trump may have a pathway to victory.
Yet if the polling trends hold, this is unlikely. Clinton may not win in a landslide, but it doesn’t look good for Trump.
There is, however, another significant risk associated with being a Trump supporter. It’s not just about whether he wins, but what he does if he wins. Trump supporters expect him to ‘build a wall’ and make Mexico pay for it, to strong-arm China into better trade deals, to bring back jobs that have been shipped overseas, and to take a brand of political incorrectness to the White House the likes of which we have not seen in our lifetimes. His supporters cast him as an outsider pitted against a corrupt Washington insider, who says what he means and means what he says. In short, they have high expectations.
But are those expectations justified?
As noted, the avid Trump supporter may be salivating for victory, but given the polls, it is unlikely it will come to pass. Trump is wildly popular among a few, but wildly unpopular among the many. This fact should give pause to the Trump supporter not simply because of what it says about his odds of winning, but because of what it suggests about whether Trump will stay the course that won him the primaries.
Trump has run a campaign as undisciplined as any that can be recalled in modern history. This is in part because he relies almost exclusively on the power of media attention (and manipulation) and his own unhinged personality than on the gritty nuts-and-bolts of modern campaigning that launched Obama to the presidency in ’08 and ’12. As a virtuoso at garnering media attention, Trump has relied on rallies, press conferences, television interviews, social media, and the art of the bombastic statement to get out a message that resonates with a core group of supporters. But his message consists primarily of slogans like ‘make America great again’ and ‘build a wall’ and ‘ban Muslims’ and ‘it’s gonna be beautiful,’ as well as vague generalities about getting along with Russian President Vladimir Putin and strong-arming China into trade deals more advantageous to the U.S.
With memes like these, who needs ideas? Who needs facts?
It seems safe to say that Trump does not have any ideas. Whenever Trump is pressed on facts or substance, he resorts to ad hominem attacks, denials, and disregard for his interlocutors. He rarely shows a predilection for the art of debate and dialectic. He rarely shows a proclivity for serious reflection or for giving thought to the advice of his advisors. He doesn’t read. He doesn’t listen. He simply talks. And talks. And talks.
His talk does resonate, however, and this has inspired an ardent base of supporters who will never be convinced to vote for anyone else. It is a limited core, but Trump presumably hopes to build from it. And as he does so, Trump supporters may find themselves severely disappointed. Trump supporters hold up signs that indicate they believe they are among the ‘silent majority,’ but Trump and his supporters are anything but silent. They are loud and they are obnoxious. As a result, Trump has alienated almost all segments of the American population except angry white males susceptible to the old Ross Perot shibboleths. It is hard to believe they represent anything close to a majority. Yet, it is not his unpopularity alone that should worry the Trump supporter. What should also worry the Trump supporter is the strong possibility that Trump does not live up to the ‘outsider’ mantle often invoked to distract attention from his many outrageous statements which get constant play in the media. Why? Because Trump is starting to realize, or perhaps has always known, that he will have to shift gears if he wants to win the general election, and if, in the event he wins the election, he wants to govern successfully and ‘get things done.’ In other words, it is highly unlikely that Trump will live up to the ‘promises’ he has made to his supporters.
As he shifts gears to build his base of support, can his supporters trust Trump to continue to support what he supported in the primaries? To the extent that Trump has positions that can be identified, can he be trusted to follow through on them? The National Rifle Association (NRA) has endorsed Trump as someone who will appoint Supreme Court judges who will uphold the right to bear arms. But can the NRA trust Trump to do so? Trump rose to political prominence with a stance against amnesty, promising mass deportation and the building of a wall. Can Trump supporters expect Trump to follow through?
Can Trump supporters, in short, expect Trump to be a man of his word?
Ultimately, one cannot know for sure until Trump becomes president. But I am skeptical, for at least two reasons.
One, Trump has historically been all over the map when it comes to policy positions. He used to support gun control, now he doesn’t. He used to be pro-choice, now he isn’t. He used to be friends with the Clintons, now he’s not. He says he opposed the Iraq War, though the evidence is sparse at best. And now Ted Cruz is looking prescient as Trump appears to be wavering on his policy of mass deportation after a recent shakeup of his campaign has been followed with a more scripted campaign (at least by Trump standards). Trump denies that he is flip-flopping, but his pivot appears to support a new approach that resembles the approach followed by Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, not to mention rivals he assailed during the primary season for supporting any version of amnesty.
As one story points out, this is nothing new for Trump. Invoking a book by Washington Post investigative reporter Michael Kranish and Washington Post senior editor Marc Fisher, “Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power,” the story writes:
The Republican presidential candidate who during the primary called for a deportation force to round up the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants has toned down his rhetoric over the past week. As the general election draws closer, he’s meeting with leaders in the Hispanic community and even entertaining “softening” the immigration laws currently on the books.
For Kranish and Fisher, this change is more or less in line with a lifelong showman who’s more interested in telling the people what they want to hear rather than developing a principled stance on a given issue.
In short, Trump’s apparent ‘softening’ on immigration is simply one more example of a man who has few fixed principles, a man who has changed his positions more often than a philanderer changes girlfriends, a classic showman who tells the crowd what it wants to hear not because he believes it himself but because he is more interested in the spotlight than the things he says while in the spotlight.
One is, of course, allowed to change his views as his understanding of issues evolves and deepens, but please forgive me if my gut is skeptical that Trump changes his views because his understanding of issues has evolved or deepened. In the case of immigration, it strikes me as little more than a transparent adjustment to garner more appeal in the general election. Trump is more interested in winning than how he wins. If his views genuinely changed as a result of serious reflection on issues, he would presumably provide us with substantive interviews, press statements, op-eds, and other ways of explaining the reasons for a change of heart. But that is not Trump’s way. Instead, his views change like the wind, and they appear to be motivated simply by a desire to win. When he was in the lead during the primaries, it was all about the polls; now that he’s not in the lead, he doesn’t trust the polls and alleges that the only way Clinton can win Pennsylvania is if there is election fraud. These are not the statements of a man whose views change because he has a change of heart.
Shouldn’t that concern his supporters? Or cause them to be less enthralled because Trump is revealing himself to be…wait for it…a politician?
It seems Trump is more of a politician than the worst of them. If ever there was a naked emperor, it is Trump.
The second reason for skepticism about whether Trump would be a man of his word is related to the first. Trump appears to have little understanding of the issues and little regard for facts. In one of the primary debates, he clearly demonstrated that he did not know what the Nuclear Triad is. Having been asked about modernizing the Triad, he rambled at length about nuclear proliferation in general without even coming close to explaining how he would modernize the Triad, and then stood unperturbed as Marco Rubio followed with a clear description that the Triad consists of air, sea, and land delivery mechanisms if nuclear weapons are ever used. In an interview during the primary season, Trump appeared to confuse the Iranian Quds Force (an external operations wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) with the Kurds (an ethnic group of roughly thirty million people that inhabit parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Armenia). Only weeks ago, Trump predicted that Russia ‘is not going to go into Ukraine,’ even though it has already seized the Crimea. And when he expressed support for Saddam Hussein because of how Saddam supposedly handled terrorists, he appeared to be clueless about Saddam’s extensive support for state-sponsored terrorism.
These are knowledge gaps that, for a man who says he consults himself on foreign policy because he has ‘a very good brain,’ would be disastrous if he sat in the Oval Office. They would be disastrous not only because they can be exploited by world leaders, but because a man who has so little command of the facts can only have ‘ideas’ that are not grounded in facts. This is not only irresponsible. It is downright disrespectful to anyone who supports him.
Why disrespectful? Because Trump does not care what the view is. He is using his supporters to win, not trying to win to give a voice to his supporters. Who knows what Trump ultimately supports? If you press him on issues, he doesn’t respond in a way that gives you any confidence that he’s interested in the merits of the argument. When he’s caught getting it wrong, he denies saying something or attacks the critic or threatens defamation or simply continues to state the same thing over and over. Or he bans a press outlet like the Washington Post from his news conference. It is the sign of a candidate who is unhinged and undisciplined. Saying whatever comes to mind is fine at the family dinner table on Thanksgiving, but it will not fly at the table of diplomacy where interlocutors like Putin are far more sophisticated than Uncle Joe and Aunt Delores. Shooting from the hip won’t fly with supporters if he becomes president and begins to court policies that differ from what his current supporters expected, and then maybe he attacks those initial supporters because, well, they ‘don’t get it,’ or he’s trying to ‘get things done,’ or something like that. He may as well be drunkenly throwing darts, or shooting in the dark. Of course, that seems to be what he’s been doing all along. He can see the dartboard, and he knows what he’s trying to hit. But hitting a bulls-eye or somewhere in the vicinity requires precision and skill, which, when it comes to facts and analysis, are not Trump’s forte. So a Trump supporter seems to be saying: at least he his throwing at the right dartboard. But who knows if Trump really cares about where on the dartboard he hits? And who knows if, once he becomes president, he starts looking for another dartboard in another bar, having become bored by the game or uninterested in the ambience of the bar?
Trump does not seem to have any fixed ideas. He stands by the weathervane to see which way the wind blows. That’s the extent to which he can claim to have any ideas. His slogans are empty. He does not back them up with substantive policies. Trump is a man of his word, but only in the sense that you never know what will be the next word to come out of his mouth. That seems to be a quality in politicians that Trump supporters despise. And yet it seems that is the very essence of their candidate.
Or figure on Trump being a major disappointment to his supporters.
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