Co-authored with Lauren Tarde
You might be forgiven for thinking ― given all that has happened since Donald J. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton for the U.S. presidency in November 2016 ― that buyers’ remorse would be rampant in contemporary America. But it is not. It is true that Donald J. Trump started his presidency capturing only a minority of the popular vote; and that he is significantly less popular in polls taken today than he was on election day. But very substantial pockets of support remain. They remain among members of his electoral base. They remain among life-long Republicans, not all of whom greeted his emergence as their presidential candidate in 2016 with any great enthusiasm; and they remain – as far as one can tell – in the deepest recesses of the Alt-Right. In those circles at least, there is much talk of seven years of Donald J. Trump in the White House; and for those of us who do not care for that prospect, the immediate political imperative is clear. We need to understand who voted for the Trump-Pence ticket in 2016, why they did so, and whether any or all of them can be dissuaded from doing so again in 2020.
One way of doing that is to build a detailed map of promises made, constituencies mobilized, and commitments delivered; so that – properly armed with the record of aspiration and achievement – the debate in 2018 and 2020 can be built on solid evidence rather than on fake facts. That mapping will be the subject of a later posting linked to this one, but any mapping needs to come after, rather than before, an examination of buyers’ remorse: because not all of those who bought into Trump’s electoral upset did so because of specific policy promises. On the contrary, both the reasons for supporting a Trump presidency, and the intensity of that support itself, varied across the electoral coalition; and because it did, not all of the coalition’s constituent parts can be easily persuaded – thus far at least – to regret their November 2016 decision.
But some can, and we need to know which.
Electoral coalitions are invariably constructed as though they were tall buildings. They have floors and floors of participants within them, some of whom are more fundamental to the structure of the building than are others. The Trump electoral coalition certainly took that form. It was very much like a real Trump tower, combining a solid base of unshakable Trump support with a middle level of reluctant if still willing supporters, and a top layer of those voting for Donald Trump for want of someone better. The Trump name may be blazoned across the whole thing, but the whole building is not united in its enthusiasm about the labeling. On the contrary, the higher up the electoral tower you go, the greater degree of buyers’ remorse you are likely to uncover; and with it, the greater the possibility of rolling back the coalition – certainly in 2020 and arguably before.
There were at least three significant groups of voters in November 2016 who are unlikely to vote for Donald Trump the next time around. The first are the Sanders supporters who voted for Jill Stein (or even for Donald Trump himself) to make what they thought was a safe protest vote against a sure Clinton victory. The second are the many voters who, though disliking Donald Trump as a candidate and not necessarily sharing his politics, so disliked Hillary Clinton that they were prepared to sup with the devil to keep her out. The third, no doubt overlapping with the second, are the Democratic Party faithful who failed to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate this time round. The size of each of these groups should not be under-estimated, nor their significance for the final outcome downplayed. For on the contrary, the electoral data from November 2016 suggests that, in the wake of the bitter primary battles between Clinton and Sanders, more than 1 in 10 of Bernie’s primary supporters eventually cast their vote in the general election for Trump rather than for Clinton. The electoral data also suggests that as many as 51 percent of those telling Pew Research that they intended to vote for Donald J. Trump did so “because they [had] rejected Mrs. Clinton rather than because they support[ed] the businessman;” and in a key state like Michigan, many former Democratic Party supporters simply stayed home. Obama won Michigan in 2012 by 350,000 votes. Hillary Clinton lost Michigan in 2016 by 10,000 votes: and did so by polling almost 300,000 votes less than Obama had four years before. It was “those sure-Democrats who stayed home” who then “handed the election to Trump;” and in doing so clearly got more than they bargained for. Which is why it seems reasonable to expect growing evidence of buyers’ remorse among all three of these groups; and even if that remorse is not yet visible among the anti-Hillary crowd, where the source of the animosity runs deepest, Hillary Clinton will presumably not be standing as a candidate in 2020 – so Donald J. Trump will not be able to capitalize on the anti-Hillary vote twice, try as he undoubtedly will to keep the “crooked Hillary” theme running for as long as he can.
The middle floors are currently more solid for Donald J. Trump than they will be soon. A significant if indeterminant number of Republicans voted for him in spite of their earlier preference for more conventional Republican presidential candidates. Many of these loyal party voters were presumably motivated ultimately to side with Trump by their desire to see the full Republican platform delivered in a post-Obama era: on health care, on foreign policy, on immigration, and on taxation. But not all of those Republican voters were (or are now) enthusiastic Trump supporters. On the contrary, many who identified themselves as loyal and committed Republicans apparently voted for Donald J. Trump reluctantly and with unease. They did so because – when push came to shove – it was more important to them that their party should control the White House than it was that its occupant should be the perfect embodiment of their ideals. And alongside them it seems sensible to put two other groups of voters whose electoral support any Republican standard-bearer would presumably have won: committed libertarians on the one side, and social conservatives on the other. The post-election polling data suggests very limited amounts of buyers’ remorse among these groups yet, not least because of the pattern of judicial appointments that the Trump White House has quietly pursued. But remorse is beginning to emerge now, at least among those few moderate Republicans openly talking of voting Democrat in 2018 to stop the Bannon bus, and among the handful of conservative Republican Senators now declining to run for re-election because of their personal vulnerability to the Trump-Bannon bandwagon. Let us hope that soon there will be more.
Then there is the Trump base: this complex mixture of alt-right voters normally excluded from the mainstream of American politics, and blue-collar Americans in rust-belt states who normally vote without enthusiasm/hope, but this time they voted in unprecedented numbers because they had found – they thought – a champion. Donald J. Trump was embraced by them because he articulated a vision of an America in which white working- class families would do better again with him in the presidency than they had under a black Democratic President or would under a white female one. Donald J. Trump won these rust-belt states by appealing to their economic interest and to their patriotism, and by toying with both the racism latent in parts of that base and the antipathy to east coast elites that is more general in blue-collar America. According to exit polls on election day itself, Trump beat Clinton 2:1 among high-school graduates, and established a stunning 61:20 voting gap among white only high-school educated men. Particularly in the “Rust Belt” states of Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Trump flipped a third of the counties that had voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, en route to victory.
If you chose to explain this part of the Trump vote in terms of racism, ignorance and xenophobia, then of course no buyers’ remorse can be expected here. But since the truth is otherwise – that the bulk of the rust-belt vote was a rational response to systematic neglect of working-class interests by free-trade advocates on both sides of the party divide in Washington DC – buyers’ remorse even here is surely just a matter of time. For although some part of the Trump base is too entrenched in its racism and nativism to be winnable by any form of progressive politics, and should not be pursued even for a moment for that very reason, the bulk of the Trump base was not attracted to him by his dark side. They were driven in his direction because he promised them jobs, prosperity and respect; and as he fails to deliver any of those things as he governs, the gap between the Trump promise and the Trump performance should eventually trigger a significant degree of buyers’ remorse even in sections of his core support.
Understood that way, both the prospects and the tasks facing anti-Trump forces in the next two electoral cycles (2018 and 2020) are clear. The prospects are these: that Donald J. Trump will continue – both by his style of governing and whatever content he brings to it – to mobilize significant resistance among would-be Sanders voters, among those drawn to him in 2016 only out of antipathy to Hillary Clinton, and among those looking to him for economic salvation. Donald J. Trump will do his best, that is, to recruit for his opposition by regularly pandering only to the most conservative elements of his base. Indeed, if the last ten months are any guide, many mainstream Republican voters too may come to have serious buyers’ remorse as the Trump presidency continues to implode.
How substantial that buyers’ remorse turns out to be, however, rests on three other things, none of which Donald J. Trump directly controls. It depends on moderate Republicans being willing to put country before party. It depends on the Democratic Party getting its act together quickly and with enthusiasm; and it depends on the political class as a whole finding ways of restoring a basic trust in federal politics that the Trump victory demonstrated to be now widely absent. Restoring that trust is not going to be easy; and it certainly will not happen so long as moderate Republicans remain immobilized by the threat of a Steve Bannon-orchestrated primary wave, and the Democratic Party – deep in its own internal crisis – remains unclear on whether its return to power is best achieved by tacking to the center or by pulling to the left.
The weight of responsibility that a Trump presidency places on the shoulders of moderate Republicans is truly enormous. They may fantasize about finding a Republican presidential candidate to challenge Donald J. Trump in 2020 who stands to Trump’s left – so nearer the political center – and such candidates will no doubt come forward. But with the Republican Party base now so conservative, and Bannon’s alt-right friends mobilized as never before, the chances of such a realignment occurring within the modern Republican Party must be slim indeed. Perhaps voting Democrat in 2018 will be a way of helping ensure that Bannon-type candidates fail in the general election even if they win in the party primary – so helping to educate the Republican base in the need to moderate its conservatism – but if that educational effort fails, as it likely will, moderate Republicans may well need to recognize that, for the foreseeable future at least, the Republican Party is lost to them; so that it is time now to abandon tribalism in favor of service to country.
The Democrats, for their part, would do well to recognize that there is no short-term fix to the policy messes now being created in health care, taxation and immigration by an Administration determined to deconstruct what modest structures remain of the US welfare and environmental state; and that in consequence they should stay away from deal-making with this President. The Democratic Party’s national leadership would also do well to realize that if they tack to the center, hoping to attract to their ranks moderate Republicans in search of a new political home, they will simply embolden the very conservative forces inside the Republican Party that now threaten moderates so severely. The task of the Democrats now is not to turn back towards Wall Street. Nor is it to chase the Republican Party to the Right. The task of the Democrats now is to lay out a clear, precise and progressive answer to the health care, poverty and employment insecurities of mainstream America, to reframe the contemporary political debate as a choice between greed and chaos on the one side and stability and fairness on the other, and then to invite people of good faith to stand with them in the delivery of their superior alternative to Trumpism.
Cocooned as they are by the daily output of the conservative media, parts of the Trump base are lost to progressive politics for the conceivable future. But other parts are not. They can be reached, and trust partly restored, by solid promises on healthcare, wage protection and fair taxation. And that is a triad of commitments that can also eat away at the middle layer of the Trump electoral coalition, and re-galvanize the top. Donald J. Trump does not have a vast popular majority to lose. All that is necessary, for the era of Trump to end, is for moderate and sensible Americans to re-assert themselves. That reassertion will make America great again in ways that Donald J. Trump never will!
For the extensive sourcing on which this post is based, see the version available at www.davidcoates.net