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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
Senate Intel Postpones Testimony by Cohen
1 days ago
Senate Rejects Effort to Nix SALT Tax Changes
2 days ago

"Senate Democrats on Thursday failed in their first attempt to save the state and local tax deduction, which helps many residents of California and other high-cost states reduce their federal income tax bills. The Republican-controlled Senate voted 52-47 to reject an amendment that would have prevented the Senate from considering any bill that repeals or limits the deduction as part of a planned tax overhaul."

Lewandowski Meets with Senate Intelligence Committee
2 days ago

"President Donald Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski appeared on Capitol Hill for a closed-door interview with the Senate intelligence committee Wednesday, according to a source familiar with the matter. Lewandowski is the latest senior official in Trump's orbit who has met with the committee as part of its investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with the Trump campaign."

Some Members Seek to Wrap Up Russia Investigations by Year’s End
3 days ago

"A growing number of key Republicans are sending this message to the leaders of the congressional committees investigating potential Trump campaign collusion with the Russians: Wrap it up soon. In the House and Senate, several Republicans who sit on key committees are starting to grumble that the investigations have spanned the better part of the past nine months, contending that the Democratic push to extend the investigation well into next year could amount to a fishing expedition."

Trump: Marino Withdrawing Nomination for Drug Czar
4 days ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.