Trump Walks the Political High Wire

Like the Flying Wallendas, the president thrives on the oohs and ahhs of the crowd and accepts the risks of a bruising fall.

Nik Wallenda of the Flying Wallendas circus family walks on a wire 12 stories above the street in Newark, N.J., in 2008.
AP Photo/Mike Derer
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
March 6, 2017, 8 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Trump is go­ing to miss Hil­lary Clin­ton. Last Novem­ber, both Trump and Clin­ton had en­thu­si­ast­ic sup­port­ers. But most voters cast neg­at­ive bal­lots against one or the oth­er. And some voters, called “double neg­at­ives” by poll­sters, dis­liked both of them so much that they picked what they saw as the less­er of two evils or threw their sup­port to Liber­tari­an Party nom­in­ee Gary John­son or the Green Party’s Jill Stein. (It’s worth keep­ing in mind that Stein’s vote count ex­ceeded Trump’s vic­tory mar­gins in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wis­con­sin, the three states that ef­fect­ively de­term­ined the out­come of the elec­tion). Now that Trump doesn’t have a foil in Clin­ton, it’s all about him.

Trump’s style seems more about sub­trac­tion and di­vi­sion, des­pite the fact that polit­ics is sup­posed to be about adding and con­sol­id­at­ing sup­port. His well-re­ceived ad­dress to a Joint Ses­sion of Con­gress last week could have been a nice bit of ad­di­tion. But his mo­ment­ary tri­umph was rendered moot by on­go­ing con­tro­ver­sies in­volving Rus­sia and his in­tem­per­ate tweets on Sat­urday ac­cus­ing Pres­id­ent Obama of tap­ping his phone.

Since about a week in­to his pres­id­ency, Trump has gen­er­ally held an ap­prov­al rat­ing between 40 and 45 per­cent in the Gal­lup Or­gan­iz­a­tion’s daily track­ing poll, with dis­ap­prov­al boun­cing between 50 and 55 per­cent. (There was one sharp drop in mid-Feb­ru­ary when his ap­prov­al rat­ing dropped to 38 per­cent and his dis­ap­prov­al jumped to 56 per­cent.)

If Trump con­tin­ues to ob­sess­ively stoke his base while thumb­ing his nose at every­one else, his ap­prov­al rat­ings will likely stay pretty much where they are. The lines already are harden­ing. Those who like him are stick­ing with him, while those who don’t are be­com­ing even more dis­il­lu­sioned.

Ac­cus­ing Obama of or­der­ing a wiretap dur­ing the cam­paign can be seen as an ef­fort to give sup­port­ers an al­tern­at­ive ex­plan­a­tion should re­cord­ings or tran­scripts emerge of con­ver­sa­tions between cam­paign staffers and people work­ing on be­half of Rus­sia. Un­der this scen­ario, the hope is that the fo­cus would be on ne­far­i­ous be­ha­vi­or by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Some Trump back­ers already are call­ing it a scan­dal as big or big­ger than Wa­ter­gate, yet there is little if any evid­ence sup­port­ing Trump’s al­leg­a­tion. Us­ing Obama as a foil in­stead Hil­lary Clin­ton could de­tract at­ten­tion from any sus­pi­cious con­tacts with Rus­sia. Of course it could be dis­missed as just something else he’s made up, like voter fraud, crowd sizes, and the na­tion­al crime rate.

We now live in a tri­furc­ated me­dia en­vir­on­ment: a con­stel­la­tion of con­ser­vat­ive me­dia sources on­line, talk ra­dio, and cable; an ana­log­ous group­ing of lib­er­al me­dia out­lets; and broad­er main­stream out­lets in the middle, al­though zealots on both sides see the main­stream as in ca­hoots with the op­pos­i­tion.

Wheth­er on the Right or on the Left, ideo­logues and par­tis­ans will be­lieve and put up with nearly any­thing as long as it’s re­motely plaus­ible and in­volves some ne­far­i­ous activ­it­ies by the oth­er side. More voters than ever are liv­ing in ideo­lo­gic­al and par­tis­an bubbles, ig­nor­ing or “de­friend­ing” any­one hold­ing po­s­i­tions con­trary to their own. For polit­ic­al lead­ers, keep­ing their polit­ic­al base in­tact is crit­ic­ally im­port­ant. Ar­gu­ably, Re­pub­lic­ans were suc­cess­ful in do­ing so for the last four years, en­abling them to win a pres­id­en­tial race with less than a plur­al­ity of the vote. They simply aroused a hy­per-en­thu­si­ast­ic base in enough of the right places to get 303 elect­or­al votes. As long as the base is with you, you are with­in strik­ing dis­tance of win­ning, this the­ory goes.

But it’s hard to look at Don­ald Trump and his pres­id­ency through any con­ven­tion­al lens or ap­ply any nor­mal yard­sticks to him. Wheth­er part of a grand plan or im­pro­visa­tion, state­ments and be­ha­vi­or that would have ended the ca­reers of oth­er politi­cians have made it pos­sible for him to prosper. Trump’s strange polit­ic­al al­chemy works des­pite the fact that it seems to defy lo­gic and polit­ic­al grav­ity. Walk­ing on a high wire may seem crazy to the rest of us, but it’s just a day at the of­fice for the Fly­ing Wal­l­en­das, and for them, things have worked out pretty well. (I know one mem­ber of the Wal­l­enda fam­ily, and she’s bright, im­press­ive, and per­fectly nor­mal.) Trump, like the Wal­l­en­das, thrives on the oohs and aahs of his audi­ence.

So while many of us can watch things that Trump does with shock and even hor­ror, we need to keep an open mind about the out­come. As he showed dur­ing the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, he can be crazy like a fox. But for any oth­er politi­cian con­tem­plat­ing a Trump-style cam­paign, I ad­vise ex­treme cau­tion. He’s a polit­ic­al dare­dev­il like no oth­er, and it re­mains to be seen wheth­er he’ll turn out like Evel Knievel. In oth­er words: Kids, don’t try this at home. It may or may not work for him, but it surely won’t work for any­one else.

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