The Pew Research Center released its initial findings Thursday on Americans’ views of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition. The top-line message was that Trump’s overall approval numbers are lower than his predecessors’ were during their transitions. But a deeper dig into Pew’s numbers reveal the opposite to be true within his own party. Seventy-nine percent of Republicans or those who lean Republican are happy with Trump’s transition performance. That’s a higher Republican approval rating than either George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush got during their transitions. Two-thirds (67%) of Republicans and Republican leaners think Trump will make at least a good president, up from 54% in October.
Among the predecessors Trump was compared to — George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — only one also lost the popular vote: George W. Bush, who did so by a half a percentage point. As of the time this piece was written, Trump had lost the popular vote by 1.9 percentage points. With 46.3% of the popular vote, Trump took a smaller percentage of votes than any of those predecessors except Bill Clinton in 1992, when third-party candidate Ross Perot took 18.9% of the vote.
All that is to say, of course, that Trump’s overall approval rating is lower than it was for his predecessors. His predecessors each received a stronger mandate to lead.
During the campaign, I wrote about how Trump isn’t an aberration in the contemporary GOP, but a reflection of it. The 2016 Republican party platform takes incredibly strong stances, from building a wall that covers the entire Southern border to amending the Constitution in order to make abortion illegal. Much of the hemming and hawing from Republican Party leaders during the campaign was about Trump’s way of framing his beliefs rather than his beliefs themselves. Love or hate the player, he came from the game.
Look, party platforms are not influential at a national level. Few read them, and fewer still make voting decisions based on them. But they’re symbolically useful as an expression of values and beliefs. They’re an anchor that helps us push through campaign rhetoric to understand what, exactly, is being fought for by each side.
In the context of this year’s Republican Party platform, it’s depressing to watch the surprise unfolding at a national level with each of Trump’s Cabinet picks. On Thursday, a Washington Post article asked “Do Trump’s Cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” Fun game for the end of days: Substitute “contemporary Republican Party” anywhere you read “Trump’s Cabinet” in the mainstream press, and see if it reads any differently.
Trump has appointed a mix of old-guard and contemporary Republican leaders to his Cabinet. Some, such as Trump’s choice for Labor secretary, millionaire fast-food franchiser Andrew Puzder, reflect the Republican Party’s long-held belief that the country can and should operate more like a business. Some, such as Trump’s chief strategist, Breitbart News’ Steve Bannon, reflect a radical contingency of the Republican Party that has grown in number during the Obama administration. Others, such as future Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, represent only Trump’s loyalty to those who supported his campaign; like Trump himself, Carson has no credentials applicable to the post.
From the outside, it can look like Trump is pulling names out of a hat. But there are enough nods to the traditional Republican Party to keep them from revolting, enough to the alt-right to keep their hateful white dream alive, and enough left-field picks to keep the antiestablishment people sated.
Unlike prior presidents who promised the world on the campaign trail and tempered expectations during the transition, Trump has just kept going. In Ohio, he told supporters "It’s time to remove the rust from the Rust Belt and usher in a new industrial revolution,” the piece of his campaign that was perhaps the most widely criticized as being impossible due to increased globalization and technological advances. What’s not to love about an impossible promise?
And Trump has a way of explaining away fishy dealings with a tagline. "I want people that made a fortune, because now they’re negotiating for you," he said in Iowa. The cognitive dissonance between “Drain the Swamp” and “Hand the Reins to Another Billionaire” doesn’t seem to bother Trump. His unwavering belief in his own sheer force of will to, for instance, create peace in the Middle East can be comforting on its face; he continues promising what he promised, just harder.
And he knows that only political pundits and career politicians are furrowing their brows about the transition’s internal squabbling. Trotting Mitt Romney out in front of the cameras was a campy show of Trump’s strength. It’s the very same kind of aggressive flourish that made him a successful TV boss. Go get China! Crush that labor leader! Make Mitt eat crow! Crowds are pitiless; they clap for blood.