On Sunday, Politico’s Annie Karni wrote up what President Trump learned from the Charlottesville controversy. The tl;dr version is that he’s politically bulletproof:
The Republicans in Congress who distanced themselves from Trump during the height of the controversy last summer have since embraced the president on tax reform and his Supreme Court selection, Brett Kavanaugh. Many of the executives who walked away from Trump’s business councils have simply taken their hobnobbing behind closed doors: Now they quietly dine with the president at the White House, or with his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner at their Kalorama mansion.
Trump’s poll numbers, while still hitting a ceiling below 50 percent, in the year since Charlottesville have climbed up to a high of 44 percent, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Trump is in high demand as a campaign surrogate among Republican candidates. His supportive gang of Fox News hosts have become more ethno-nationalist in their rhetoric than they were a year ago. . . .
The experience of Charlottesville, as well as his ability to recover from any short-term crisis, has been empowering for Trump and his allies. Three former aides said the takeaway from Charlottesville is the nihilistic notion that nothing matters except for how things play.
“The lesson of the Trump presidency is that no short-term crisis matters long term,” said one former White House official who worked in the administration last year during the racial crisis.
Call this the “Fifth Avenue” hypothesis: that Trump can do anything he wants, including shooting a man on Fifth Avenue, and still come out winning.
This would certainly make Trump an exceptional president. But is it true?
Trump is abnormal in a lot of ways. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has recorded how Trump acts more like a toddler than a mature adult. Even die-hard Trump supporters do not agree with the president’s press-bashing and hyperbolic tweets. His policies and programs are, to quote George W. Bush, “some weird s‑‑-.” And it is certainly true that despite all of this, his control over the GOP has strengthened.
Still, put me in the Nate Silver/Jonathan Bernstein camp on this question:
Trump is abnormal as a party leader and in his out-of-step-with-America policies. But 2016 seems to have blinded people to the fact that when it comes to politics and elections, Trump is not all that unusual. In terms of vote share, Trump’s performance in 2016 was not all that different from a garden-variety Republican. Back then I wrote:
The fundamentals of the 2016 campaign had the race as pretty close to a toss-up. Economic growth in the first half of 2016 was pretty weak. The incumbent party was trying to win a third consecutive presidential campaign. Both of these facts meant that, despite Obama’s personal popularity, the fundamentals of the campaign were far from a Democratic cakewalk.
Many political journalists and pundits have taken Trump’s 2016 victory as a sign that the fundamentals of politics have been disrupted. Reasonable people can disagree about whether that was true about the GOP primary, but Trump’s general-election performance was extraordinary only in comparison with people looking at polls in early October. Indeed, as political scientist and election forecaster Jim Campbell noted last year, “With a few exceptions, the accuracy of the presidential vote forecasts ranged from impressive to extraordinary.” He actually underperformed most fundamental political-science models.
Since then, there is no denying that (a) Trump has eviscerated many norms of governing and politics and (b) that the GOP remains mostly loyal to him. Does this mean that he’s defied the laws of political gravity? Not in the slightest. Despite his party controlling both chambers of Congress, Trump has accomplished remarkably little on the legislative front beyond the tax bill. Even on the deregulation front, Trump’s antics have sabotaged him far more than they have helped. And it is worth noting that there are issues — tariffs, Russia policy and the hypothetical firing of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — where even most GOP officials are not rock solid behind Trump.
On the political front, everything tweeted above remains true. In the special elections since 2016, the GOP has underperformed badly. A Democrat got elected senator in Alabama, for Pete’s sake. The generic midterm ballot continues to favor Democrats rather handily. And, as Vox’s Ezra Klein and others have observed, Trump’s low-40s favorability rating is historically bad given the (superficial) state of the U.S. economy. Indeed, as the Monkey Cage’s John Sides told Klein, “Trump’s poll numbers are probably 20 points below where a president would typically be with consumer sentiment as high as it is now.”
So why does the Fifth Avenue hypothesis have such a hold in some political quarters? There are three reasons. The first is that, hey, maybe this time is different, and Trump is actually bulletproof. It is possible, but let’s put a pin in that explanation for now.
The second reason is that Trump has managed to behave badly for a long time, and his support, while low, has not evaporated completely. I suspect that many Americans and most pundits would hope that ordinary Americans would categorically reject a malignant narcissist who lies repeatedly, kowtows to authoritarian leaders, insults women and minorities, and labels the press as “the Enemy of the People.” But while Trump is unpopular, his base has stuck with him. He has not been impeached, he has not faced mass resignations from his Cabinet, and Republicans are not revolting en masse. It’s the political corollary to what I wrote back in March:
The world has not yet ended. Or, to put it another way: Trump feels he’s winning because he is not losing as much as everyone has claimed. . . .
Trump has such a short-term worldview that if something calamitous does not happen immediately after he does something, it bolsters his assumption that he’s bulletproof. Despite doomsaying predictions of a crashing economy if he was elected, the economy is still chugging along. Despite dire warnings that the tariffs would trigger a trade war and a global economic scare, that has not happened yet, either. Despite much clucking about the impropriety of shifting from “maximum pressure” on North Korea to a planned summit, no alliance has been torn asunder.
Let me be very clear here: I am not saying any of Trump’s moves are great ideas. But they haven’t triggered immediate catastrophes either.
This leads to the third explanation. The only indicator that matters in ascertaining Trump’s political mojo is electoral outcomes. The only large-scale data that matters on this front is the midterm elections, and they haven’t happened yet. Sure, one can look at special elections, but they’re called “special” for a reason. In debating Trump’s political gifts, pundits will rely on his 2016 victory until the next set of national elections allow for some updating.
If the GOP gets clobbered by a wave election, then suddenly the narrative that events like Charlottesville do not matter will start to spoil. And if recent history is any guide, the GOP will get clobbered. In 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2014, the party out of power cleaned up. Almost all the data point to Democrats making significant gains in the midterms. If it happens, then Trump will again demonstrate how he is a normal president.
If it does not happen, then we can revisit the Fifth Avenue hypothesis. Until then, remember: Trump has not defied political gravity. So far, his political performance has been the most normal thing about his presidency. The only reason that people believe this is that elections have consequences, and November’s elections have not happened yet.