Donald Trump is unpopular. This fact is often lost in analysis that treats his most committed supporters as barometers of the country at large. But it’s true: Most Americans disapprove of President Trump and oppose him on most issues.
Pundits treat Trump as if he’s winning the national conversation or at least holds a clear advantage. In the Washington Post on Monday, James Hohmann warned that “liberal hostility” toward the White House—including the public shaming of administration officials like Stephen Miller and Sarah Huckabee Sanders—“supercharges the president’s sense of grievance and gives fodder for the argument … that he and his followers are disrespected.” In turn, the “nastiness” could “alienate and depress middle-of-the-road independents who prize pluralism.” Likewise, at Axios, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen see Trump as the winner in an escalating game of outrage. “The more President Trump does, says and tweets outrageous things, the more his critics go bananas and the better he does in the polls,” they write.
Some of this is due to a recent spike in Trump’s approval rating, when he hit 45 percent—a personal best—last week. But Trump’s improvement is overstated. Even after that spike, polling averages show him well below his margin in the 2016 presidential election. FiveThirtyEight has him with 42.3 percent approval to 51.6 percent disapproval. HuffPost Pollster has him with 42.8 percent approval to 51.8 disapproval, and RealClearPolitics has him with 43.7 percent approval to 51.1 percent disapproval. These are averages, so they don’t capture recent trends, which show Trump on the decline. A new Gallup poll released on Monday shows Trump back where he was before the brief spike: with 41 percent approval to 55 percent disapproval.
To put those numbers in context, Trump is less popular at this point in his term than any president since Gerald Ford. If his job approval continues its recent decline, then he’ll once again claim the mantle of historic unpopularity.
There’s also little evidence to support the idea that liberals are alienating moderate and independent voters by expressing outrage at Trump and his administration. Widespread dislike for the president is one force behind the striking Democratic gains of the past 18 months, from surprising victories in state legislative races and shocking upsets in special elections—like Doug Jones in Alabama and Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania—to outright waves, like the broad victory in Virginia’s elections last year.
The Virginia elections, in particular, saw controversial anti-Trump messaging, like an ad from the Latino Victory Fund, a left-leaning political action committee, that featured a white man—in a pickup truck bearing a bumper sticker for the Republican nominee and a Confederate flag—menacing nonwhite children. Conservatives predicted a backlash that would doom Democrats and elect Republican Ed Gillespie as Virginians recoiled against “hateful” campaign materials. Instead, the Democratic nominee, Ralph Northam, won a 9-percentage-point victory over Gillespie, and Democrats won each statewide office and overcame Republican gerrymanders to nearly take control of the House of Delegates.
Electoral politics are volatile enough that liberal outrage may eventually have an impact on the margins of a race. We just haven’t seen it yet. The anger directed against Trump in national commentary and social media hasn’t stopped Democrats in Missouri or Oklahoma or Pennsylvania from flipping state legislative seats, nor has it stemmed erosion in Republican Party identification. Most Republicans support the president but fewer people are calling themselves Republicans, even as conservative media ramps up its defense of President Trump and works to generate anger among its consumers.
On the issues, Trump remains at a distinct disadvantage. Most Americans prefer Democrats on health care and taxes, as majorities oppose Obamacare repeal and the Republican tax law. While White House officials see immigration as a wedge issue for Trump, most Americans reject his approach to the border. Seventy-five percent say immigration is a “good thing” and just 29 percent say immigration to the United States should be decreased. Two-thirds of Americans opposed his child-separation policy.
Democrats still have an uphill battle to win the House of Representatives—and an even steeper climb in the Senate—to say nothing of what it will take to defeat Donald Trump in the next presidential election. But that has less to do with his popularity, and more to do with his structural advantages. As we saw in 2016, high support with blue-collar whites gives Trump a powerful boost in the Electoral College, mitigating his poor performance with most other Americans. And the Republican Party has successfully gerrymandered the House such that it can lose a national majority by several points, but still retain a majority of seats.
Still, the politics of the moment are straightforward: Donald Trump is unpopular, and anti-Trump anger has yet to prove dangerous to his political opponents. Perhaps there is a silent majority of Trump supporters, seething at perceived disrespect and eager to vote in November. If it exists, we haven’t seen it yet.