Under President Donald Trump, politics in the US takes odd turns almost daily. In his need to control the political narrative, the president makes contradictory tweets and statements that keep politicians off balance. One day, he appears disciplined and “presidential”; the next day he appears petty and impulsive. Nobody knows what is doing or what he will do, which is creating a spreading sense of unease about his presidency.
The recent barrage of tweets attacking Republican leaders in Congress, however, gives some insight into what Trump is thinking and where US politics is heading. Before entering the race for the Republican nomination in 2015, Trump had switched parties several times and, at his own admission, contributed to candidates from both parties. He briefly flirted with running for the nomination of the Reform Party in 2000.
Now defunct, the Reform Party grew out of Ross Perot’s strong independent candidacy for president in 1992. Like Trump, Perot was a straight-talking businessman who had no political experience. He funded his own independent run and received 19 percent of the vote, the highest any independent had received since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. He founded the Reform Party and ran as its candidate in 1996, receiving 8 percent of the vote. In both cases, Perot drew more from the Republican Party, which helped Bill Clinton win two solid victories.
In preparing for his run, Trump looked at Ross Perot’s two campaigns and decided that his only chance of winning was as a Republican. To win, he took on the party establishment while rallying his base. The more the establishment tried to crush him, the more his base came out for him. His base is a combination of middle-class and downscale white voters, many of whom have weak ties to the Republican Party. The wealthy pro-business and religious conservative wings of the party resisted him, but ended up supporting him to defeat Hillary Clinton.
He followed the same strategy to defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election. He rallied his base, particularly in Rust Belt states, to increase his support while framing Clinton as the voice of the establishment.
To Trump’s mind, then, rallying the base and attacking the establishment, not only got him the Republican nomination, but also put him in the White House. It has become his political brand. Trump knows that brands need to be nurtured, which explains the recent series of attacks on Republican leaders in Congress and other outbursts.
The problem for Trump, of course, is that he is no longer a candidate, but a sitting president. No president with weak support in his party has been re-elected. The last three presidents who were defeated -- Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush -- faced strong primary challenges that left them weakened in the general election.
Trump’s popularity is now lower than any president at a similar point in his term. The average of major polls is about 38 percent, which is 8 percent lower than the 46 percent of the vote he received in the 2016 election. Most of the decline no doubt comes from Republicans who had strong doubts about him during the race for the nomination. They held their noses when they voted for him, but are repelled by his presidency so far.
Looking forward, Trump’s low popularity suggests that the Republican Party could lose control of Congress in 2018 and that Trump will most likely lose in 2020. Commentators are already speculating about a possible primary challenge for the Republican nomination.
The problem, of course, is that the US now has four parties, two of which live inside the established parties. The Republicans are divided into traditional Republicans and Trumpists, and the Democrats are divided into traditional Democrats and Berniecrats who remain loyal to progressive Bernie Sanders. Among the four groups, including those who lean toward one of them, the Trumpists are the largest at about 35 percent. Traditional Republicans and leaners make up only 10 percent. Traditional Democrats make up about 25 percent and Berniecrats about 20 percent. Independents make up the remaining 10 percent.
Trump knows that he needs to add about 10-15 percent to his Trumpist base to win. That means reaching out to traditional Republicans and grabbing some independents. He also knows that a sharp division between the two factions of the Democratic Party will help his cause, just as it did in 2016. Much will depend on whether the Democratic nominee can unite the party and how Trump rebrands himself to meet that challenge. As Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Ed.