The American presidency has a good deal of military hardware behind it, but much of the president’s power, especially domestically, consists of soft power. “Political capital” became a cliche in the 2000’s, but the idea is borne out: A president has only so much goodwill to expend on unpopular policies. The amount of a president’s political capital is a function of his popularity, as well as his party’s control of the other branches of government.
Donald Trump entered office with scant political capital. Both he and Hillary Clinton were historically unpopular candidates, and Trump holds the distinction of winning a majority of the electoral vote by the smallest popular vote margin: Although he won a clear majority of the electoral vote, he lost the popular vote by almost three million ballots. Thanks to a margin of about 80,000 people in three key states, Trump won the election with a smaller proportion of the electorate behind him than even Rutherford B. Hayes, who failed to secure a majority of the electoral college, sending the election to the House of Representatives.
In addition to being objectively unpopular, the post-election analysis suggests he was broadly popular with only one group of people: white people. Unlike the last two elections, if you were a white person of any age, gender, income, or level of education, it was more likely you voted for Trump.
All of this goes a long way toward saying that, when he entered office, Trump had little room for error. In the first few months of his presidency, Trump’s approval rating accelerated downward at an historic pace: By February, a majority of those surveyed disapproved of Trump’s performance. It’s remained under 50 percent since. Events in the ensuing eight months have only made things worse. The Muslim ban, the firing of Jim Comey, the Russia investigation, and the mangled response to Charlottesville, and the healthcare boondoggle have all contributed to Trump’s historic unfavorability. (All of these, by the way, were problems of his own making.)
What happens to a presidency that fails to launch? We saw some of the results this weekend, as both Secretaries of State and Defense, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, respectively, were caught on camera essentially saying you can feel free to ignore the president. A stronger president wouldn’t tolerate this, but on the other hand, a stronger president wouldn’t have engendered this response. With Trump at the helm, it feels like no one is in charge. Trump, despite his bluster (which many knew was bluster, but which many others believed was genuine business acumen), has turned out to be a poor, amateurish negotiator and a terrible manager. Not only does he lack a basic understanding of the policies he touts, he doesn’t seem interested in even learning.
No one expects the president to be an expert, but a president generally makes up for a lack of expertise by surrounding himself with experts. Trump has, instead, chosen to surround himself with people personally loyal to him, including family members, regardless of their qualifications. Even those who would like to pursue some sort of agenda, like Tillerson, are stymied by the president’s refusal to staff hundreds of positions within the State Department that are crucial to informed policymaking.
As a result, the ship of state is adrift—and for how long? The president has promised war on his own party, but he fails to understand that he long ago spent what precious little political capital he had. Despite dozens of gaffes, foibles, and scandals—any one of which alone would have (and has) ended the aspirations of prior candidates—a plurality of the American people took a chance on Trump, and the Republican Party took a different chance, knowing all they would need is a warm body in the Oval Office to sign into their law their fevered dream of tax cuts, rolling back ObamaCare, and curbing regulations on business. That roll of the dice has proven to be a loser, but Republicans refuse to do anything due to their fear of Trump’s rabid, frothing base, which could comprise as much as 40 percent of the electorate nationwide, and which comprises a significantly larger proportion of the electorate in Republican cities and states. Not even Trump’s all-but-explicit endorsement of white nationalists barely registered with his supporters.
Trump shows no signs of changing. Pundits have desperately proclaimed one moment or another to be “the day he became the president” (which should be alarming, eight months in), only to be proven wrong days later. Does this portend three and a half years of stagnation? Japan had a “lost decade”; will the 45th be the “lost presidency”? Trump promised his supporters that we’d win so much, we’d get tired of winning. For now, it looks like a stalemate at best, and we may have to resign ourselves to career officials in government shuffling along, keeping things going, while Trump golfs his way to infamy.