Donald Trump is betting that America's fascination with the anti-hero will bring him success, writes Julian Zelizer
President-elect has never been tuned into approval ratings, he writes
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of “Jimmy Carter” and “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He also is the co-host of the podcast “Politics & Polls.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
President-elect Donald Trump doesn’t really care if you don’t like him.
The media has been all over the recent spate of polls showing that Trump will enter office with historically low approval ratings. Trump, who was never especially popular even in his victory, has seen public support for him drop during the transition.
According to a new CNN/ORC poll, he will start his term with the approval of only 40% of Americans, the lowest of any recent president. Of those surveyed, 53% said that Trump’s behavior since Election Day has reduced their confidence in his ability to handle the presidency.
Trump went right to his favorite mode of communication, tweeting out that, “The same people who did the phony election polls, and were so wrong, are now doing approval ratings polls. They are rigged just like before.” While the email reflects Trump’s very thin skin and disregard for everything negative along with a misunderstanding of the difference between election polls and surveys of public attitudes, the truth is that Trump doesn’t care.
Trump’s entire political character revolves around not being liked. If professional wrestling is the model, a form of entertainment that Trump has been part of, he plays the heel.
Several months ago, I wrote that part of the reason Trump resonated in American culture has to do with a popular fascination with the anti-hero in recent decades. Our films and television shows have been populated by characters who we like to see even though we know deep down that they are not good people.
Whether it was Tony Soprano, a mafia boss who is willing to kill turncoats during a college visit with his daughter or Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” who makes money for his family by running a drug empire, sometimes being bad can be good.
Throughout his presidential campaign, the pundits kept wondering when Trump would stop angering people, when he would start reaching out and when he would pull back from the incendiary comments that left a long trail of broken feelings along the way.
Trump never made that pivot. He kept being the same person that he was. And even with historically low approval ratings for a winning candidate back in November, he still won.
Even though President Obama brought a great deal of respect and gravitas back to the Oval Office, we still are a nation that lives in the shadow of Richard Nixon. Ever since Watergate, expectations of our presidents have diminished.
While there were presidents who voters have liked very much, for example Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, we have also become more hard-nosed and cynical in our expectations of what to expect.
Part of Trump’s strategy was to recognize that there were enough voters who like a tough, acerbic and often nasty candidate to chart a narrow path to the highest office in the land. When asked by the Times of London about who is heroes were, his answer was not surprising: “Well I don’t like heroes, I don’t like the concept of heroes….”
Part of his strategy also depends on the belief that in a bitterly polarized and divided country, a candidate can thrive not by trying to bring people together but by capitalizing on the things that tear us apart.
Rather than looking for issues that can bring non sympathetic voters over to his side, he liked to give the Republican base red meat and to tap into the secret anger and despair of Democrats who were willing to switch sides.
By fostering division and focusing on the institutional strengths of his party, Trump anticipates that a presidency of division will be enough to conquer the opposition. Though his tweet responding to the polls focuses on the way that the polling might be off, more relevant to him is that the basic question doesn’t even matter. Being liked is overrated in presidential politics.
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The biggest asset that he is counting on will be the Republican Congress. At least for the next two years, Trump is savvy enough to know that he will be dealing with a Republican Congress that on most issues is quite united and thus far has been pleased with many of the very conservative cabinet picks that he has thrown their way.
If Trump can avoid his worst instincts and if conflict-of-interest or abuse-of-power scandals don’t bring down his presidency, there is reason to believe that a rightward Republican Congress will stand by him as long as he sends tax cuts, deregulation and defense spending their way. With Jeff Sessions as the attorney general and Scott Pruitt at EPA, what’s not to love if you are sitting on the Republican side of the aisle?
It remains to be seen if this strategy will work in the long term. Thus far, it did get Trump the Republican nomination and the presidential election. So the experts should not be so quick to discount him.
It just is possible that the old axiom of “divide and conquer” might be a recipe for political success in our polarized era – even if many Americans don’t want to acknowledge the true nature of our political universe.