Most presidents — even those elected in polarized times or controversial circumstances — enjoy some sort of honeymoon period after they win an election. People tend to put their hopes and dreams into the idea of hope a new president represents, even if they did not vote for him. It's a reminder of our fundamental optimism as a people.
Donald Trump, as we are reminded every day, is not “most presidents.” And, according to new numbers from Gallup, he never had anything close to a honeymoon period.
Just 4 in 10 people polled by Gallup say they approve of the way Trump is handling his transition — a stand-in for presidential approval in this odd three-month interregnum. Those are the lowest marks ever measured by Gallup for an incoming president. They are also half — yes half — as high as the 83 percent of people who approved of how Barack Obama handled his own presidential transition in late 2008 and early 2009. And Trump's numbers even track well below those of George W. Bush, whose transition was cut short by an extended recount that left lots of the country unconvinced that he had actually won.
What those numbers suggest is that the divisions that the Nov. 8 election highlighted so starkly — Trump winning the electoral college vote, Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote — have not shrunk in any meaningful way since then.
Trump has made the occasional nod toward unity since the election but, by and large, he has kept up the unapologetic confrontationalism — not a word but you get my point — that served as the hallmark of his campaign. His statements during his news conference this week affirmed that Trump has no plans to back down on, well, anything.
That the electorate is so deeply divided on Trump's transition — and Trump himself — means he will not enjoy any sort of bipartisan goodwill at any point in the early days of his presidency. (Just 13 percent of Democrats approve of how Trump is handling the transition.) That may be less of a concern for Trump, because his party controls the House and Senate — making it easier for him to push his priorities even if Democrats are entirely aligned against him.
One thing that Trump's numbers suggest, though, is that we ain't seen nothin' yet when it comes to political polarization. Those who thought the Obama years were the peak of the two parties' not being able to agree on anything may well look longingly back at that era as we move into the Trump presidency. Not only do partisans hold strong beliefs about Trump and his administration, but Trump himself seems to revel in the partisan warfare. The idea of his offering an olive branch to his political foes seems about as likely as the Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl any time soon.
Numbers like these are simply the latest sign that Trump is ushering in a new era of politics in which the old rules of the game need to be scrapped. He seems to grasp that intuitively. The rest of the political world — most definitely including reporters — is still playing catch-up.