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Why Trump could be a popular president, and how to prevent him from becoming one

Trump Visits Air Conditioning Manufacturer Carrier After Deal To Keep 1000 Jobs Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

After Donald Trump made a big to-do about an Indianapolis Carrier factory retaining some jobs it was previously planning to ship to Mexico, almost every elite commentator dismissed it as a PR stunt and terrible policy.

Yet the PR stunt worked. Six in 10 voters said it gave them a more favorable view of the president-elect, including, notably, one in three Clinton voters.

Right now, Trump’s approval rating is around 50 percent. That’s up a bit from Election Day, but still considerably less than the popularity of past presidents who had just been elected. (Obama, for example, had an approval rating of about 75 percent in December 2008.)

Trump’s popularity matters a great deal. Congress has considerable constitutional authority to limit Trump’s damage — but only if its members choose to use that power. If Trump is popular, most Republicans and even some Democrats in Congress will fear challenging him, worried that even a single tweet attack could hurt their reelection prospects. If Trump’s popularity sinks, however, more congressional Republicans will suddenly find the courage to challenge him.

This why the good PR Trump got from the Carrier stunt should give serious heartburn to anybody concerned about the existential damage Trump could do to our democracy. If Carrier is a preview of what’s to come, Trump could turn out to be very popular.

Why Trump’s Carrier stunt succeeded — and what this tells us about politics

To understand why Trump’s Carrier stunt succeeded, it’s worth turning to a 1964 political science classic, Murray Edelman’s The Symbolic Uses of Politics. The takeaway lesson is that in politics, clear symbolic actions are often more important than results (which are often ambiguous or unclear). As long as Trump defines his presidency through symbolic actions (like the Carrier deal), he could be very popular.

Edelman’s foundational point is that most people don’t pay close attention to the details of policy, and the news media does a poor job of covering the details (in large part because most people don’t care about the details). As a result, Edelman writes, “Politics is for most of us a passing parade of abstract symbols.” Knowing this, skillful presidents and other leaders can deceive mass publics through the careful use of symbols.

Following a long line of thinkers going back to Durkheim and Freud, Edelman notes that there is something about modern society that makes many people feel as though they lack control of their own lives. “Alienation, anomie, despair of being able to chart one's own course in a complex, cold, and bewildering world have become characteristic of a large part of the population of advanced countries,” he writes.

He continues: “As the world can be neither understood nor influenced, attachment to reassuring abstract symbols rather than to one's own efforts becomes chronic. And what symbol can be more reassuring than the incumbent of a high position who knows what to do and is willing to act, especially when others are bewildered and alone?"

In particular, Edelman notes, many people are attracted to the idea of a leader taking charge, cutting through the chaos and confusion of the distant world of government and politics. Most people want a decisive, energetic force of action who appears to be on their side. They want somebody who can convey a supreme take-charge confidence.

But here’s the kicker, and the insight that should ring alarm bells: It doesn’t matter whether problems are actually being solved. Most people can’t tell the difference, especially if the symbols tell them otherwise. It’s the appearance of forceful problem solving that matters. Like many classic problems of monitoring, it is far easier to judge the appearance of effort than the relationship between efforts and results. Hence, Edelman writes, "The public official who dramatizes his competence is eagerly accepted on his own terms.”

This is what Donald Trump grasps. Above all, he is a showman of decisive action, a take-charge businessman who make great deals. “I alone,” he said in his memorable convention speech. “I alone can fix it.” Other nominees before him showed deference to providence in their acceptance speeches, and called on the American people to do their part, too. Trump instead dramatized his own can-do competence against the gathering dangers of a dark and frightening world.

Edelman also has a remarkably timeless resonant critique of the media worth highlighting (emphasis added): “It is no accident of history or of culture that our newspapers and television present little news, that they overdramatize what they report, and that most citizens have only a foggy knowledge of public affairs thought often an intensely felt one. ... Publishers and broadcast licensees are telling the exact truth when they excuse their poor performance with the plea that they give the public what it wants. It wants symbols and not news."

Again, Trump grasps this point fully. Much has been written about his success in playing the press by focusing on the shallow and petty to distract from the serious. But the insight here is that the media responds to what most people want. And too many people are still more interested in how Kanye West and Donald Trump got together than they are in understanding the details of the emoluments clause and how Trump’s business empire may put him in violation of a constitutional clause saying presidents can’t accept foreign gifts (a.k.a. “emoluments”).

Action = popularity, inaction = unpopularity

The passage from The Symbolic Uses of Politics that sticks with me most is an extended 1962 quote from pollster George Gallup about presidential popularity. It is worth reading in full:

I would say that any sharp drop in popularity is likely to come from the President's inaction in the face of an important event. Inaction hurts a President more than anything else. A president can take some action, even a wrong one, and not lose his popularity. One of the great mysteries of the political scene last year was why President Kennedy did not suffer a great loss of popularity after the Cuban setback. But he didn't. People tend to judge a man by his goals, by what he's trying to do, and not necessarily by what he accomplishes or by how well he succeeds. People used to tell us over and over again about all the things that Roosevelt did wrong and then they would say, 'I'm all for him, though, because his heart is in the right place; he is trying.'... If people are convinced you are trying to meet problems and that you are aware of their problems and are trying to do something about them, they don't hold you responsible for 100 per cent success. Nor do you have to have any great ideas on how to accomplish the ends.

What the founder of the Gallup poll is saying is that after decades of looking at public opinion polling data, he’s noticed that when people evaluate their president, they care more about effort than results. As long as the president is taking action, as long as it appears he is trying to solve problems, people will support the president. But if the president is seen as passive, his popularity falls.

Consider George W. Bush’s presidency. The table below charts his public approval.

It is worth noting two things. The first is that Bush’s popularity spikes at 9/11 and again in early 2003, at the time of the Iraq War. Both are moments of decisive leadership.

The second is that in the second half of 2005, Bush’s approval rating takes a drop. And from there, it never recovers.

The key turning point was August 2005: Hurricane Katrina. It was a moment of inaction. Bush waited several days to survey the damage, and only from his plane and only after his administration had proven entirely incompetent in coordinating disaster response. The iconic symbol that came away from that flyover was a photo of Bush looking remote and distant as he observed the damage from high above. In retrospect, Bush recognized this as a mistake. Once it came to define him, he was finished. He was no longer a man of decisive action. He was a distant and remote president, incapable of controlling events.

One reason Obama’s popularity may have been so flat is that Obama was quietly competent, but with few defining moments. He never experienced the highs of strong decisive action or the lows of perceived paralysis.

To be sure, there are limits to this way of thinking, especially in these partisan times. Most Democrats are unlikely to ever support Trump, especially if Democratic leaders oppose him.

And certainly, there are significant limits to what presidential persuasion can accomplish, especially if you’re trying to persuade those who already disagree with you.

But Trump doesn’t need to be that popular overall for congressional Republicans to fear him. He just needs to be very popular within his own party for congressional Republicans to fear him. And if Congressional Republicans are unwilling to challenge him, Trump will have a lot of free reign as president.

This point about presidential action is related to political scientist Brendan Nyhan’s “Green Lantern Theory of the Presidency” — “the belief that the president can achieve any political or policy objective if only he tries hard enough or uses the right tactics.” Though anyone who knows anything about how Washington actually works understands that there are significant limits to what even presidents can do, most voters and even many Washington journalists still hold on to the assumption that, like the fictional Green Lantern Corps, whose members have magical rings that give them superhero powers, the president is also capable of anything.

Last August, Nyhan wrote a column titled, “Donald Trump, the Green Lantern Candidate,” in which he observed that Trump had “exploited our vulnerability to pleasing fictions about presidential power.” When Trump says “our country needs a truly great leader, and we need a truly great leader now,” Nyhan’s harrowing insight is that “Mr. Trump says he can be the president we’ve always imagined. How can a political system that has helped create that ideal say otherwise?”

Why an infrastructure bill would be political gold for Trump, and why a sluggish economy might not hurt him

These insights should make it clear why Trump is so keen to pass a major infrastructure program. If such a program passes, he would almost certainly spend months traversing the county, presiding over projects as they get underway, then cherry-picking those that seem most successful for an endless string of photo ops. He’d trot out the hard-working men and women who built the new roads and bridges, assembling a collage of iconic popularity-building symbols.

It won’t matter how many times Paul Krugman explains why the Trump infrastructure program is actually just a huge subsidy to private companies. The symbols that will proliferate in the minds of most voters will be those of Trump in a hard hat, standing on construction sites, talking about how many jobs he just created. These will be the images on the 6 o’clock news, on newspaper front pages, on the TVs playing CNN at the airports. These will be the images that sustain Trump’s popularity as a man of action, a man of competence, a man on the side of hard-working people. If Democrats help Trump pass this bill, they are giving him a very generous gift certificate to the Green Lantern store of political PR.

Democrats might comfort themselves with the wonky confidence that Trump’s proposals can’t possibly help those voters he purports to help, since there’s no way manufacturing jobs are coming back in an age of automation. Moreover, the economy is due for a recession. And a sluggish economy always hurts an incumbent.

Democrats, however, should not be so confident in thinking a focus on the economy will help them.

The first problem with this strategy is the symbols versus results problem I’ve just been describing. If Trump is out there every day, with a PR strategy focused on jobs, jobs, jobs, voters will think he is doing something. Even if the economy is sluggish, Trump can find plenty of “globalists” and “corrupt elites” to blame, or turn the focus to race and identity issues and take action there. Note, for example, that FDR remained popular throughout the Great Depression. One reason may be summed up in this oft-quoted line from a mill worker: “Mr. Roosevelt is the only man we ever had in the White House who would understand that my boss is a son-of-a-bitch.’” That is, as long as voters think the president is on their side, that’s the thing that matters.

The second problem is the partisan filter problem. In the days following the election, many remarked on the shocking fact that Republicans suddenly felt a whole lot better about the state of the economy, even though nothing objective in the economy had changed. This is a well-known and longstanding political science result: Most people evaluate the state of the economy more through their partisan loyalties than through objective economic indicators.

As Chris Achen and Larry Bartels note in Democracy for Realists, “Even perceptions of economic well-being … are subject to considerable vagaries. Prospective voters’ economic perceptions are powerfully shaped by partisan biases, rationalization, and sheer randomness.” That is, if Trump is otherwise popular, his supporters could well believe him when he says the economy is doing well. Even if it isn’t.

How to make Trump unpopular

There is, however, a weakness to Trump’s full embrace of the decisive man-of-action approach to being president, and a reason why other presidents have been less eager to take on the “I alone” messaging strategy. And that reason is that it is very, very hard to succeed at it.

And it is more difficult now more than ever, given both the complexity of modern governance and the deeply polarized nature of modern politics. It is especially difficult when you staff a Cabinet with little to no government experience, as Trump has. It’s hard to imagine a Trump administration staffed by political amateurs not falling prey to a series of scandals of incompetency.

Think back to Bush’s Katrina flyover. It wasn’t just an image that stuck. It was a whole narrative around the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) botched response, largely because it was an agency run by people who had no actual experience in emergency management. This kind of incompetence eventually catches up with an administration.

Perhaps Trump can shake off a few scandals like this and blame his subordinates with some big public “you’re fired” fireworks. But there are limits to how often he can do this. Likewise, if his legislative proposals fall flat (as they likely will), he can blame the corrupt Republican establishment and the hated Congress (term limits, anyone?) for a while. But not forever. In other words, at some point his “I alone can fix it” shtick may grow stale, if he really can’t fix it.

The most likely scenario is still that Trump winds up as one of the most un-popular presidents in American history. He comes in with record-low approval ratings for a president-elect, and typically, approval ratings fall once an initial presidential honeymoon period ends, and disappointment with reality sets in.

This is the normal pattern. But these may not be normal times. Trump has repeatedly defied the predictions of political experts who were once sure that he could never become president, let alone win the Republican nomination. There is something different about Trump. Unlike normal presidents, who are constrained by the norms of shame and accept some limits on stretching the truth, Trump is not worried about being caught in a lie. He is unabashed about propaganda and symbolism. And our political media still hasn’t figured out how to handle this.

Much depends what Trump is allowed to get away with. If Trump continues to set the agenda and define it with symbols of him taking decisive action on behalf of the people, it might not matter how the economy actually performs. If he continues to show blatant disregard for the truth, and continues to connive the press into broadcasting his version of things, the images and symbols will stick.

So those who want to see Trump defeated should think long and hard: What are the issues where he will be unable (or unwilling) to respond? How can an opposition define him by symbols of inaction? Rather than countering Trump’s propaganda with facts alone (though facts are important!), opponents will also need to figure out how to paralyze Trump — how to shake the vision of him as a decisive leader who knows exactly what to do and then does it.

Right now, the crescendoing claims of Russian electoral meddling potentially hit Trump in his weak spot, because he has no strong response. He has dismissed the claims. If this story continues to dominate the news, and Trump does nothing to respond (perhaps because he collaborated with the Russians? Perhaps because Putin is trying to blackmail him? Who knows? People are saying…), a narrative of inaction could emerge.

If the dominant symbol of Trump’s presidency becomes him shrugging off bipartisan allegations of Russian electoral meddling and bipartisan demands for retaliation, his popularity will likely decline. By contrast, if the dominant symbol of Trump’s presidency is him donning a hard hat and bragging about all the jobs he is creating as part of his infrastructure program, he will likely be a popular president. This will make it much harder for Congress to challenge him.

Certainly, events are unpredictable. We don’t know what issues will dominate for the next four years. But the patterns of mass politics are more consistent. And the consistent pattern, per Edelman, is that “politics is for most of us a passing parade of abstract symbols.”

Regardless of what happens, if Trump gets to pick the dominant symbols that crystallize those events, and those dominant symbols are Trump as a man of action, then his popularity benefits. If the dominant symbols are Trump as a man of inaction, presiding over an incompetent administration, paralyzed by events, his popularity falls. It may be as simple as that.

And again, to succeed, Trump’s popularity doesn’t need to be that high. He only needs Congressional Republicans to fear his popularity. And if this happens, Trump can get away with quite a bit.


Watch: It’s on America’s institutions to check Trump

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