I’ve been waiting for three and a half years for Donald Trump’s approval ratings to start dropping. Every now and then something happens that seems to start that decline, but eventually the numbers come back up, resettling somewhere around 40 percent (as of today, he’s at 41% in FiveThirtyEight.com’s aggregate of polls).
Trump’s appeal wasn’t as much of a surprise to me in 2016 as it was to most people. In an overcrowded Republican primary field – there were 19 declared candidates at one point, mostly all parroting the same points – Trump stood out with his promise to build a wall (and have Mexico pay for it) in order to keep out “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists” supposedly pouring across the country’s southern border. If you were already worried that the era of white domination of America’s politics and economy was coming to a close (not an entirely inaccurate belief), Trump’s xenophobia was right up your alley.
I did not, however, think Trump had any chance in the general election. I was, obviously, wrong. My only solace is that, according to some who were with the new president-elect on election night, Trump was apparently as surprised as I was. The vagaries of the electoral college had a lot to do with that, of course, and Hillary Clinton wasn’t exactly the most popular Democratic candidate, either (the two candidates both had unfavorable ratings by Election Day 2016 – Clinton at 52% unfavorable and Trump at 61% unfavorable).
At this point, most of the people who support Trump are all in. He famously claimed that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and [not] lose voters.” And that was in early 2016, before he was even elected. They’re fully invested in this guy. They called Ronald Reagan the “Teflon president.” If there’s anything more stick-resistant than Teflon, Trump is coated with it.
That level of devotion isn’t completely new. For decades, people have voted for the same party over and over. When I was young I delivered The Detroit News in my neighborhood in Pontiac, just a few miles from General Motors’ GMC Truck and Bus plant. The News was the Republican paper in metro Detroit, the Free Press was the Democratic paper. There were two paperboys delivering the Free Press in my neighborhood; each of them had about 60 customers. I had 13 customers – total – and one of them was my mom, who also took the Free Press, was the daughter of a UAW retiree, and was as Democratic as they come (in fact, over a year after her death, I’m still getting campaign letters sent to her at my home address). People stuck with one party or the other because of their economic status, whether you were a union member or a part of management, religion, race, ethnicity, and, as much as anything, family tradition. The “Reagan Democrats” of 1980 were a turning point; disgruntled with the Democrats (and Jimmy Carter’s presidency) on both economic and social issues, blue-collar union members (traditionally a solid Democratic cohort) flipped the script and voted for Reagan. Many of them have continued to do so ever since.
The level of devotion for Trump reminds me of religious fervor, the rallies acting as revivals to jump-start the faithful. Perhaps a less-ominous comparison would be devotion to a sports team, no matter how flawed that team is (as a Detroiter I fully understand this thanks to the Lions, who we continue to hold our hope for despite 63 years of mostly futile NFL seasons). The word “cult” is being tossed around, but the truth is that word can apply to more than just Trump supporters.
If we’re waiting for most voters to make informed, rational assessments of the candidates and then vote accordingly, we’re in for a long wait. It was never really as simple as we learned on Schoolhouse Rock, but it’s nice to think that it still might be.