The one sentence that best encapsulates the entire 2016 election for me is when Donald Trump said: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
He may have meant it as hyperbole (at least I hope he did). But it isn’t far off the mark.
Over the months prior to Election Day, Trump’s popularity, as measured by polls, waxed and waned. But it remained impressively high throughout — with levels of enthusiasm unmatched by any other candidate. It survived the Access Hollywood video, tax return revelations, the Trump Foundation and Trump University scandals — and everything else. Trump not only survived all of these things but — as we now know — thrived well enough to claim victory in the end.
True, many of Trump’s supporters expressed disapproval and dismay at his words and actions throughout the campaign. But, in the end, they voted for him anyway, minimizing the seriousness of his transgressions. Part of the explanation for this may be attributed to weaknesses in Clinton as an opponent, but most of the credit goes to Trump himself.
Now it is post-election. Trump has won.
Post-election, Trump supporters are finding themselves tested by a different set of challenges. Trump has significantly modified — or outright reversed — many of his signature positions, ones that generated the most enthusiastic support. To cite a few key examples:
• Pre-election, Trump promised he would appoint a special prosecutor to look into Hillary Clinton’s “crimes.” Now he wants to leave her alone and not prosecute at all.
• Pre-election, Trump described Obamacare as a complete disaster — and vowed to repeal it on “Day 1.” Now, he wants to retain significant parts of it — and may not be in a hurry to repeal any of it.
• Pre-election, Trump declared that all 11 million illegal immigrants would be deported almost immediately. Now, he is talking about focusing only on the 2 million that are “criminal.”
• Pre-election, Trump asserted that climate change was a “hoax.’ Now he says he has an “open mind” about it.
Some of these reversals will no doubt be tolerated as typical of what every candidate does to some extent, pre- vs. post-election. Plus, with Trump, who knows, he may yet un-reverse himself in the days ahead. Still, if Trump continues in his current direction, you have to wonder if his supporters will stay with him — or will they instead come to feel betrayed by his wholesale abandonment of campaign promises?
I’m confident there will be no rebellion. His support will hold — at least for the next several months.
Assuming I’m right, you might reasonably ask: “So what do Trump supporters care about? What would it take for Trump’s supporters to abandon him?”
In my view, Trump’s support rests on three pillars (and only the first two are critical). Maintain these and Trump’s supporters will forgive everything and anything else.
First, and foremost, Trump’s campaign rhetoric resonated with “downtrodden” working and middle class whites who have long felt ignored by the “establishment.” He promised these people that he would bring back jobs and spark economic recovery in their regions of the country. If he ultimately delivers on this promise (which I personally believe is very doubtful), he will be re-elected in a landslide.
Second, supporters of all economic stripes view Trump as an agent of change, someone who promised to shake up Washington (“drain the swamp”) and generally do things differently from the status quo. As long as Trump can convince the public that these perceptions are accurate, he will remain popular — even if he reverses an assortment of specific pre-election positions. Further, by generally aligning himself with a conservative agenda, he can hold on to the majority slice of traditional Republicans, even if their support is reluctantly given.
Last, and hopefully least, he appeals to the extreme “alt-right” and other bigoted segments of the population. He openly says things — about immigrants and Muslims and women and more — that had been kept covert in previous elections. This is enormously appealing to these extremists. As long as he does things such as appointing Steve Bannon to a position of power, these extremists will remain by his side. They are not a majority of the country, by any means. They are not even a majority of Trump’s supporters. But they are among his most enthusiastic supporters — and they are big enough to make a difference.
What then will happen if these pillars begin to crumble? Will it lead to election losses in the future? A lot depends on how well the Democrats are able to take advantage of such a development (something which is very much open to question). But it could indeed lead to a downfall. On the other hand, if Trump keeps these three pillars intact, nothing else will matter — perhaps not even his shooting someone on 5th Avenue. So don’t be surprised when Trump’s reversals and hypocrisies leave him unharmed. It’s likely to be Trump’s America for years to come.
Note: This is just the latest of several missives I’ve written recently about the 2016 election. You can view the rest of the them by scrolling through my Facebook page.