Is President Trump in the process of imploding? Somesee reason to think so. Given the major fallout over his travel ban, ranging from the spontaneous protests that have broken out worldwide to a federal judge ruling that the ban needed to be stopped, it seems as though Trump is struggling. Over the past few days, manycommentators have pointed to the president’s abysmally low approval ratings, with 53 percent of Americans unhappy with the way that he has handled the job, as evidence that his power may be vastly limited by his unpopularity. With Trump madly (and impotently) tweeting about “so-called” judges, the weekend has offered a real sense that this president can be stopped.
Yet his opponents probably should not start uncorking the champagne bottles just yet.
Ronald Reagan, whose approval ratings fell from 51 percent in his first year as president to a meager 34 percent by 1982, was also the focus of international and domestic fury. Reagan triggered an international uproar when he insisted on the deployment of 572 intermediate-range nuclear force missiles in Western Europe, fulfilling a NATO agreement that had been finalized in 1979. When Reagan moved this plan forward, there was an outcry from New York to the streets of Paris. Tens of thousands of moderate and left-wing Europeans demonstrated against these new weapons on the grounds that they would escalate the threat of nuclear war. Within the United States, the nuclear freeze movement ramped up into high gear, warning that this deployment was just one among many things that Reagan had done to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.
On July 12, 1982, almost a million people came to a protest in New York City to express their support for freezing the production of nuclear weapons and to state their anger about Reagan. “My belief,” said then-Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Massachusetts, “is that Reagan was not put on Earth by God to bring us supply-side economics. His role is to sit down with Brezhnev and end the arms race, to do for nuclear arms what Nixon did for China. My role is to create the atmospherics, the public and congressional support, that will make Reagan the greatest man who ever lived. He can reject, it, of course, but we will have tried.” The freeze movement drew millions of adherents, while in Congress, the House passed amendments that prohibited the administration from sending any more assistance to anti-communist forces overseas. The protests would continue over the following year, and Reagan’s approval ratings would remain low until 1984 (reaching 41 percent in January 1983). But it wouldn’t matter.
The problem was that Reagan’s support among Republicans kept growing.
While Democrats saw a renegade president whose bombast threatened to trigger a nuclear war, many Republicans saw a heroic leader who was standing up to the evils of communism and taking on all of his opponents, whether they were in Congress, on the streets, or in the media. Reagan found a way to use the protesters filling the streets to his advantage, depicting them as one more opponent to the national interest that he was willing to take on. He also proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative (which critics dubbed “Star Wars”), a hypothetical missile shield that would protect the United States from attack, as a muscular, aggressive alternative to freezing production of nuclear weapons.
Many were shocked when Reagan sailed to a landslide reelection victory in 1984 against Walter Mondale. After all, Reagan came off as unpredictable, aggressive and unschooled, not to mention suffering from a low approval rating throughout his first term and facing popular protests, just like Trump.
Trump governs in a different era than Reagan. Trump’s electoral college victory, while losing the popular vote, is much narrower than Reagan’s, and the electorate is much more polarized, meaning it is more difficult now to switch large blocs of votes from blue to red. Nonetheless, Trump could still capitalize on the same tough-man tactic Reagan did, and spin protests and outcry in his favor. So far, even as Trump’s approval ratings drop, his base remains engaged. In reviewing the approval polls released last weekend, it is important to note the partisan divide: While 10 percent of Democrats approve of Trump, 90 percent of Republicans do; 88 percent of Democrats oppose the executive order on refugees, while 88 percent of Republicans support it. Atlantic Editor Ron Brownstein pointed out that 59 percent to 38 percent of non-college-educated whites, the heart of the Trump coalition, approve of what he is doing. In other words, the coalition that won him the election in 2016 isn’t signaling displeasure with its pick, which bodes well for Trump’s chances in 2020. Protests, even as they diminish Trump’s overall approval ratings, are unlikely to budge that either, and may well cement it.
Trump never intended, nor does he intend, to be a uniter. He is a president who is the ultimate product of our partisan age. His strategy appears tailored to play upon divisions, solidifying support among Republicans and retaining the support of those slivers of the Democratic electorate who were enchanted by his economic arguments and his national security bombast. If he can do that, even with the kind of controversy and pushback that flared over the past several days, he may be able to keep the Republican Congress on his side. And in that case, he can show Americans that he is a man of his word and a man of action, all the while maintaining the base of electoral support that won him the presidency.
Zelizer is a political historian at Princeton University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. He is the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.”