During a short visit to Kyoto, Japan, on my way to Korea, a taxi driver told me that US President Donald Trump made him nervous because he is so unpredictable. I reassured him that many, if not most, Americans feel the same way. We concluded the short conversation by agreeing Trump is not fit to be president.
The problem, of course, is that in a democracy, the people have the final say on the fitness of leaders. The problem for Trump is that he won the presidency in 2016 with a solid Electoral College victory, but lagged his rival Hillary Clinton in the popular vote, which undermined his legitimacy from the start.
Trump entered office as the fourth president to lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College. Of the three previous popular vote losers, only George W. Bush managed to win re-election, by a narrow margin, and ended up leaving office deeply unpopular.
From the time it became clear that Donald Trump would be the Republican nominee, questions about fitness have clouded his electoral and policy success. Opinion polls show his approval ratings in a narrow range between 45 percent and 37 percent. Over the past year, the range has been even narrower. The US economy is at full employment and wages are rising as inflation and interest rates remain stable. Doubts about Trump’s fitness for office appear to be keeping his approval ratings far lower than expected for a president with a strong economy.
The take on Trump is different in South Korea. Most people I have spoken with expect him to win re-election because the last three incumbent presidents have been re-elected. Others believe his re-election is essential to keep diplomacy with North Korea alive. Nobody I have spoken to admires Trump, but they are willing to overlook his unpredictability and incessant tweets in the hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough with North Korea.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, talk of impeachment is intensifying. A recent news report counted 51 members of the House of Representatives who have gone on as record favoring impeachment. The Democrats currently hold 235 of the 435 seats, so getting a majority of 218 to impeach is within easy reach. As things stand now, Trump would most likely survive a trial in the Senate, where a super majority of 67 out of 100 is required to remove a president from office.
The emerging argument for impeachment is that it would show that at least the House of Representatives is taking a strong stand to defend the US constitution from a president gone rogue. So far, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has balked at impeachment talks, but that could change as pressure builds.
Only two US presidents have been impeached. Andrew Johnson, who assumed the presidency in 1865 after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, was impeached in 1868 and barely survived a Senate trial, but his political career was over. Bill Clinton was impeached in the middle of his second term in 1998 and easily acquitted in the Senate. The impeachment only helped his already high popularity, and he left office a popular president.
As with everything regarding Trump, it is difficult to predict how an impeachment would impact the election in 2020. If the public perceives it as politically motivated, it could rally to his side as it did with Bill Clinton. If the public sees it as necessary to restore order to Washington, it would damage him beyond repair. Nobody really knows, which explains Nancy Pelosi’s restraint.
Three major factors affect US presidential elections in order of importance: the economy, war and scandal. Weakness on two of these categories dooms the incumbent party, but a poor economy is particularly bad. If the US economy remains strong and there is no war, then chances of a Trump re-election remain high. Impeachment would intensify the scandal factor, but not by much, because doubts about Trump’s fitness for office are already widespread.
Donald Trump is known to rely on his gut in high-stakes deals. He relied on his gut to win in 2016 and he has relied on his gut to push diplomacy with North Korea. His gut is most likely telling him that impeachment would help rally his base because he could use it as evidence “they” are out to get him.
The big question is the economy. The current expansion is long in the tooth and Trump’s trade wars are taking their toll. As betting on Trump becomes riskier, supporters of diplomacy with North Korea would be wise to prepare for a post-Trump future.
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.