The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump is a wartime president — in a war against his political opponents

President Trump addresses a rally at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium on May 29. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
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A remarkable graph made the rounds during the weekend, created by consultant Bruce Mehlman. Using Gallup’s presidential approval ratings, he compared each modern president’s approval rating among members of his own party at this point in his presidency.

The results looked like this, excluding the Democratic presidents.

Even including the Democrats, the top two were the same: Post-9/11 George W. Bush and Donald Trump. The difference between an 87 percent approval and an 83 percent approval rating is statistically insignificant, but, regardless, only Bush has a higher approval rating among Republicans about 500 days into his presidency.

Our Philip Rucker explored one significant way in which Trump is very much unlike those past Republicans.

“In President Trump’s telling, which can often be more imaginary than real, he is a victim — a long-suffering, tormented victim,” Rucker writes, pointing to various examples of Trump deeming things to be “unfair.” Then Rucker makes a key point.

“For Trump, this posture makes and preserves political power,” he writes. “He has created around himself an aura of unfair persecution — by the nation’s elites, Democrats, the media and law enforcement — that inspires sympathy from and solidarity with his aggrieved supporters.”

That latter aspect, solidarity, is the more important one. It’s the feeling of shared aggrievement that powers much of the support for Trump.

A poll released on Sunday from CBS and YouGov reinforces that point. Respondents in battleground House districts were asked about five things that define Trump’s presidency and if they mostly like or mostly dislike them. Nearly 8 in 10 Republicans said that they mostly like Trump’s efforts to upset the “elites” and the establishment.

We’ve seen similar numbers in the past. Last summer, Pew Research Center asked those who approve of Trump why they do so, asking respondents to choose between his policies and his approach. Four times as many people who approved of Trump said it was because of his approach and personality as said it was due to his policies.

This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course. On the campaign trail, Trump railed against his opponent Hillary Clinton in part by portraying her as part of a group of elites that included Democrats broadly, the Washington establishment and the media. His supporter Jeffrey Lord, then a fixture of CNN’s coverage of the campaign, regularly argued that this was central to Trump’s success: Clinton’s endorsements and rallies with Barack Obama only helped reinforce Trump’s argument. There was uncertainty about whether Trump’s support among Republicans would erode, making Clinton’s path to victory easier, but Trump won 88 percent of the Republican vote. That’s lower than recent Republican nominees but only by a few percentage points.

Usually when presidents win, they seek to reach out to the political opposition — at least rhetorically — to build a coalition with which to govern. Trump never made that outreach in any significant way, talking often about unifying the country but making clear the gulf between the two partisan sides would need to be crossed by a bridge the Democrats need to build. In office, his policies have been a mix of traditional Republican priorities and the cultural red meat he pledged in the Republican primaries.

All the while, he’s continued to run against the elites and the establishment and Democrats. The media — positioned as the opposition from Day One — is the “enemy of the American people,” according to one tweet. Democrats are “obstructionists” blocking his agenda (ignoring the splits within his own party which preventing him from passing everything he desires). The elites are seen in the “deep state” that’s running the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. There’s an always-at-war-with-East Asia feel to the Trump presidency, and he’s leveraging partisan hostility to Democrats to expand that conflict outward.

It’s important to remember that Trump didn’t originate this hostility to Republicans’ political others. He marinated in it during the years preceding his presidential bid, watching and making regular appearances on Fox News and engaging in conspiracy theories like birtherism.

That sentiment is rising. Pew has regularly tracked partisan feeling, finding that the two parties regard each other more negatively now than at any point in the past — and see each other as a threat to the country.

Trump took over the Republican fortress and has redoubled the party’s moat-digging efforts. His willingness to fight endless cultural battles contributes to his party’s support for him, which he knows.

Consider the flip side of Mehlman’s chart. Usually, high approval for a president among members of one party correlates to higher approval within the other party, too. After 9/11, George W. Bush was approved of by most Democrats, too. Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, at this point in their presidencies, were generally unpopular among both groups.

Trump is an exception.

George W. Bush was popular with both Democrats and Republicans post-9/11 because he was focused on battling an enemy that both Democrats and Republicans hated. Trump is popular with Republicans now because he is focused on battling an enemy hated by most Republicans: Democrats.