President Trump seems to live atop his own petard. Every time it seems like he should have an advantage, he squanders it by torpedoing a legislative package, firing a government official, making absurd utterances to foreign leaders or ranting on Twitter, often against the better judgment of many who work for him. No wonder that, since Inauguration Day, his approval rating has never risen higher than the 46 percent of the vote he won last November; a Washington Post-ABC News poll out last weekend showed it at 36 percent.
But these unforced errors don’t quite explain his inability to take advantage of a boost in economic confidence or to expand, even slightly, the passionate base that carried him to victory. The problem lies with that very victory — the one that won him not only the presidency but also 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. The legacy of such deficits suggests there’s little he can do to gain the trust of the majority. American history is clear: Presidents who’ve lost the popular vote don’t win popular support.
The four previous presidents who finished second in votes cast all struggled to convince Americans that they were doing a good job. Each battled the perception that his victory was undemocratic and illegitimate; each soon lost the confidence of his own partisans in Congress and led an administration that historians regard as a failure. Each faced an uphill struggle to keep his base happy and mobilized while also reaching out to the majority, which preferred policies his voters detested. Most, like Trump so far, did not even try to square that circle.
Only George W. Bush seemed to escape this fate, for a time. But his temporary success had more to do with the acclaim he received after the attacks of 9/11 than anything else he accomplished in office. And this crisis-induced honeymoon didn’t last: During most of his second term, Bush’s rating stalled far below the 48 percent of the vote he had won in 2000, when half a million more Americans preferred Al Gore.
The three other presidents who lost the popular vote all lived and governed in the 19th century. None managed to overcome his initial political deficit or to enact any of the major policies he desired. In the 1824 election, John Quincy Adams drew just 31 percent of the popular vote. The conditions of that contest have never been repeated: Adams was one of four candidates, all of whom nominally belonged to the same party, the Democratic-Republicans. Because no man won an electoral-vote majority, the decision fell to the House of Representatives. Adams triumphed, largely because he agreed to appoint Henry Clay, one of his erstwhile rivals, as secretary of state. Andrew Jackson, whose popular-vote count had easily topped that of Adams, screamed that his rivals had made a “corrupt bargain”; if citizens accepted it, he charged, “they may bid farewell to their freedom.”
Old Hickory need not have worried. Adams was a brilliant man but a clumsy politician. He urged Congress to enact an ambitious program of public works and to establish a national university. But Adams sabotaged his own cause by declaring, in his first annual message no less, that if voters did not like such expensive measures, lawmakers should not be “palsied by the will of our constituents.” It was an oddly cavalier way to talk about what American voters wanted. After all, how courageous was it to turn away from their desires when you’d never reflected them in the first place?
Politicians who believed that Jackson had been cheated out of the presidency took full advantage of this unintentional gift. They organized a formidable coalition to oppose Adams at every turn, touching a deep popular reserve of resentment against the president. In 1828, Jackson took the presidency, carrying nearly every state outside the incumbent’s home region of New England.
Half a century later, President Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican nominee, proved unable to banish the specter of his own highly controversial triumph. In 1876, his opponent, Democrat Samuel Tilden, won a clear majority of the popular vote. But the result turned on disputed ballots from three Southern states where Republicans had clearly committed fraud yet where white Democrats had also violently intimidated many African Americans, keeping them from voting. A divided Congress threw the power to decide a winner to a special commission, which narrowly sided with Hayes.
Unhappy Democrats branded the new president “His Fraudulency” and vowed to resist his agenda in Congress. Hayes actually helped the opposition party by removing federal troops from most of the South, where they had at least tried to stop racial terrorism by former Confederates, nearly all of whom were Democrats. Neither was the president a friend to wage-earners, many of whom were suffering amid a long depression. In the summer of 1877, Hayes dispatched soldiers to break a national railroad strike, which morphed into riots against property in several big cities. A year later, the Democrats captured the Senate and maintained control of the House; Hayes’s only power was the veto, which he used on 13 occasions. In 1880, Republican operatives were relieved when the unpopular president honored his earlier pledge not to run for reelection. Hayes must have known he stood no chance.
GOP pols were sorry a dozen years later when President Benjamin Harrison declined to do the same. In 1888, Harrison had defeated the incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland by winning every big industrial state in the Northeast and the Midwest. But his share of the popular vote, at just under 48 percent, lagged behind Cleveland’s. And, like Adams, Harrison lacked the ability to appeal to voters who had not warmed to him before. In fact, Harrison was such a stiff, pompous fellow that even officials of his own party dubbed him a “refrigerator” and a “human iceberg.” Although Republicans enjoyed a majority in Congress throughout his term, they failed to enact the only bills Harrison really cared about: to give federal aid to public schools and to protect black voters in the South. In 1892, the Democrats nominated Cleveland again. This time, he thumped Harrison in both the popular and electoral votes, and his party seized back control on Capitol Hill.
Trump is the very opposite of a “human iceberg,” but he shows a similar reluctance to alter his style of political persuasion. When the president lies that millions of votes were cast illegally for Clinton in 2016, he betrays an insecurity that stems both from his personality and from knowing that most Americans wanted someone else to run the country. If Trump had begun his administration by reaching out to Democrats on a plan to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, he may have had a chance to confuse, if not divide, the opposition. Instead, he decided to wage a relentless battle against the federal bureaucracy and the news media — which comes off as defensive instead of confident. Any chance Trump has to gain majority support and get reelected probably depends on changing his behavior. That is a difficult task for any politician, much less an inexperienced one in his 70s. The knowledge that millions of Americans consider his 2016 victory undemocratic and illegitimate could render it impossible.
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