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Mandate for Disaster
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Mandate for Disaster

What lesson will Trump take from his reelection?

President Donald Trump celebrates the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act with Republican members of the House and Senate on the South Lawn of the White House on December 20, 2017. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When you really think about it, what was so bad about Donald Trump’s presidency?

Maybe that phrasing is too strong. Let’s try again: When you really think about it, what was so bad about the first three years of Donald Trump’s presidency?

The economy was good. There were no major wars. The executive branch was taking border security seriously—a little too seriously at times.

Granted, he tried to extort a U.S. ally into aiding his reelection bid. And he fired the FBI director for not shielding him from a Justice Department investigation. And he routinely sounded on social media like he was having a psychotic break. But most of the true “unpleasantness” of his term was back-ended. The coup plot, the attack on Congress, the insane babbling about gimmicky solutions amid hundreds of thousands of deaths from COVID all happened during his last 12 months in office.

He had a rough year. But we’ve all had rough years, haven’t we?

I mention all of this because “Trump nostalgia” is apparently a thing among voters, particularly with respect to the economy. A CNN poll published two weeks ago found no less than 55 percent of Americans now view his presidency as a success in retrospect versus 44 percent who see it as a failure. By comparison, Joe Biden’s numbers are 39 and 61 percent, respectively.

Trump getting good marks despite his final year is a bit like passing your road test despite driving into a wall at high speed because you managed to keep the car operating for most of the trip.

Still, viewed through the lens of Biden’s failures, even a Never Trumper can kind of understand the nostalgia. Inflation is a real burden to many Americans and chaos at the border and abroad is a source of legitimate anxiety. If Trump wins in November, it’ll be because voters want all of those problems addressed urgently. Get prices down, get some control over immigration, and get the shooting to stop in Ukraine and Gaza before we end up in a world war.

That’s his mandate. And he will seek to address those problems in time, I’m sure.

But what his mandate is and what he understands it to be are two different things. Which is a surprisingly common problem in modern presidencies.

When we say that a president has a “mandate” from voters, we might mean different things by it.

The truest example of a mandate is when an ideologue wins overwhelmingly. Think FDR in 1932, LBJ in 1964, or Ronald Reagan in 1984. Each man had a bold policy vision based on a controversial view of the responsibilities of government, and each was validated in that view by the electorate with a landslide. A president with this sort of mandate might understandably look to enact his entire agenda.

There’s another kind of mandate that doesn’t depend on margins or ideological boldness. That would be a mandate for change, which arises when the incumbent party is unpopular. Think Jimmy Carter in 1976 or Bill Clinton in 1992. Neither had a broad vision for America and neither won impressively, but both benefited from voter fatigue after long stretches of GOP rule. Their very modest mandate from an electorate frustrated by the governing party was to simply make it stop.

Modern presidents tend to behave like they have the first kind of mandate when, at best, they have only the second. Which is awfully weird in an era where landslides in national elections are rare.

Joe Biden is a notorious example. Our current president got elected because a bare majority of Americans were exhausted by the antics of his opponent and shaken by his handling of the pandemic. Biden’s party ended up with total control of government but only just barely, stuck with a slender majority in the House and a 50-50 Senate. Democrats were given a narrow mandate for change vis-à-vis Trump’s insanity: Make it stop by restoring normalcy and stability. 

Biden misread his mandate. Within six weeks of being sworn in, he was telling historians that he hoped to be a new FDR. He rescinded some of Trump’s immigration policies, presaging the current border crisis, then passed another $1.9 trillion outlay in COVID relief funds that helped ignite global inflation. He pursued ambitious left-wing programs like Build Back Better and student-loan forgiveness despite lacking FDR-level popular support, then destroyed his “stability” cred by grossly misjudging the weakness of the central government when withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Because he misunderstood why voters elected him, he’s on the brink of losing to the guy he defeated four years ago.

How about his former boss, Barack Obama? Obama came closer to a true FDR-style mandate than any other modern president by winning decisively in 2008. His party gained a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate in the same election, giving them considerable political capital to spend. Certainly Obama did have a mandate with respect to some very pressing issues: Americans wanted him to wind down the war in Iraq and to jump-start an economic recovery from the Great Recession, which he did.

But Obama also thought his mandate was greater than it was. Approval of George W. Bush had collapsed during Bush’s second term due to the war, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis. The popular desire in 2008 to make it stop, for the love of God, was palpable. The new president and his party misread that sentiment as broad ideological support for an ambitious liberal universal health care program. Two years later, they found out how mistaken they were when the backlash to Obamacare led to their House majority being obliterated in a Republican landslide. Never again would Obama be in a position to move major legislation through Congress.

Speaking of Bush 43, at the start of his presidency he went from having no governing mandate whatsoever to enjoying one of the strongest in American history. He lost the popular vote in 2000, denying him even the modest political leverage of a make it stop victory; less than a year later, following 9/11, his job approval leaped to 90 percent. Few presidents have ever enjoyed as much popular support for an initiative as he had to pursue and destroy al-Qaeda.

Bush chose to spend that immense political capital on invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein. Within a year, despite energetic efforts to make the case for war, his approval had slipped into the 60s. By March 2004, when the early success of conquering Baghdad had deteriorated into an aimless occupation, it was under 50. By Election Day 2008, with the financial crisis also now in full swing, it had reached 25 percent.

Dubya may not have “misread” his mandate so much as squandered it by not anticipating the Iraqi insurgency. Had the conflict been shorter and less costly in blood and treasure, his popularity wouldn’t have crumbled to the extent that it did. But insofar as he thought bipartisan support for the war on terror might endure durably even if he prioritized ousting Saddam, he was plainly mistaken. He didn’t have the mandate he may have thought he had.

The only president in my adult life who seems to have understood his mandate was Bill Clinton, and even then only belatedly. Clinton got elected with 43 percent of the vote in 1992, surfing a wave of make it stop frustration over the economy to victory. In his first year as president he offered a bold liberal health-care reform initiative that you and I would come to know as “Hillarycare,” spearheaded by you-know-who. He kept at it for a year; by the fall of 1994, his job approval had fallen to 39 percent. Soon after Republicans would swamp Democrats in the midterm and regain the House majority for the first time in 40 years.

A southern red-state Democrat with a plurality of the popular vote did not have a mandate for ambitious ideological change, it turns out. So Clinton pivoted to the center, worked with Republicans to balance the budget, and spent every week of the last five years of his presidency with an approval rating north of 50 percent. Not even a sordid sex scandal and impeachment could dampen public enthusiasm for him.

All in all, then, it’s been 30 years since a U.S. president understood his mandate—or lack thereof. But I’ve forgotten someone, haven’t I?

No modern president has lacked a mandate to the degree Donald Trump has.

Twice he lost the national popular vote to underwhelming Democratic opponents, failing to reach 47 percent in either race, and is likely to lose it again this fall. Never once during his presidency—not for a single week in Gallup polling—did he touch 50 percent in job approval either. He made it to 49 in the early days of the pandemic but most of his term was spent hovering in the low to mid-40s.

That’s a problem for both the man and his movement. Trump’s narcissism is so immense that it has its own gravitational pull; the possibility that most Americans might dislike him is sufficiently intolerable to him that he’s had to invent conspiracies in both elections to help him cope with his popular-vote deficits.

It’s intolerable to his cause too. Revolutionary populism purports to be the voice of a silent majority that’s been ignored or suppressed by an elite minority. When that alleged majority turns out to be a minority on Election Day, what’s left of that conceit? How does MAGA survive knowing Trump won in 2016 not because he was leading a popular revolt against the establishment but because swing voters faced with the prospect of a second Clinton presidency led by the unlikable Clinton thought “Make it stop”?

Populism desperately needs to believe that it’s popular, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Which is how we ended up with the post-election unpleasantness in 2020 to which I alluded earlier.

But coup attempts aren’t the only bad consequence of populist insecurity. If you need to believe that The People are with you even when there’s lots of evidence they aren’t, you’re going to end up governing as if you have a mandate when you plainly don’t. Which explains much of Trump’s first term.

A president who lacks a mandate has an obvious reason to govern in a bipartisan way, and Trump was better positioned to do so than any Republican in the post-Reagan era. He’s not dogmatically conservative and has never pretended to be, and he had already begun to command cult-ike loyalty across the American right early in his presidency. He could have broken with GOP orthodoxy to work with Democrats in various ways and easily been renominated in 2020.

Instead he signed a standard Reaganite tax-cut bill, then turned around and nearly killed off Obamacare. Despite his obvious sympathies for gun control, he continued to mostly toe the line on gun rights to appease his base. When it came time to choose Supreme Court nominees, he selected justices who he believed would overturn Roe v. Wade. And of course he made no effort to restrain himself publicly in attacking political enemies on the left and in the center.

That’s not what you do if you’re anxious about lacking a mandate. That’s what you do if you’ve talked yourself into believing that you have one.

Trump does seem to have to come to terms lately with the fact that certain policies favored by the grassroots right aren’t broadly popular. Abortion is the obvious example: Thanks to numerous pro-choice victories at the state level since 2022, his days of championing the pro-life cause are clearly over.

But … isn’t that strange under the circumstances?

He’s a former president and his record on abortion will be a live issue in his reelection bid this fall. If he wins anyway, it would be easy for him to conclude that the American people either support that record on the merits or, at a minimum, don’t view it as disqualifying. So why not double down on it once he’s back in office? It’s a mandate to go on being pro-life!

The answer is that this election isn’t ultimately “about” policy for Trump. The mandate he’s getting, or that he thinks he’s getting, is to confront the institutional forces that constrained him in his first term and that continue in various ways to hobble him now.

If his obsession with “retribution” hasn’t made that clear enough, consider the news on Friday that his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, will likely be rejoining his team. There’s no reason on the merits for Trump to hire him: Manafort was convicted of multiple federal crimes before Trump pardoned him and, as of late, has reportedly been jungled up with some new Chinese streaming platform that has Beijing’s support. He’s a shady careerist with dubious foreign connections, the personification of “the swamp” Trump has demagogued for years. And his political expertise is no longer needed the way it was in 2016 with capable pros like Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita now running Trump’s operation.

So why bring him back? Per the Washington Post, “Advisers say Trump is determined to hire Manafort, likely handing him a substantial role at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, because he appreciates that his onetime campaign chairman has remained loyal to him even while serving in prison.”

He’s not rehiring Manafort despite the fact that he’s damaged goods. He’s rehiring him because he’s damaged goods. He’s signaling to those who hope to work for him as president that there’s no behavior so shady that it won’t be forgiven in exchange for allegiance. And he’s demonstrating that he won’t be cowed by expectations of basic propriety in deciding whom he trusts with power. He’s leaning into the notion of kakistocracy as he prepares to take office again, not away from it.

Manafort’s not the only example. There’s no shortage of convicted or accused criminals who are likely to end up advising Trump in a second term, formally or informally. He’s already talked of bringing back Mike Flynn, who’s become a major right-wing political celebrity in his second life as a conspiratorial fanatic on the vaudeville circuit. Roger Stone and Steve Bannon, who’s likely on his way to prison soon, will surely also be back in some capacity. And don’t forget Peter Navarro, who’s behind bars as I write this after defying a congressional subpoena related to the 2020 election.

Trump doesn’t need anyone from this rogues’ gallery on his staff in a second term, as there’s no dearth of smart, soulless mainstream Republicans who’ll be happy to fill those roles in exchange for a leg up in the party. He’s going to bring them back simply because he can, as a sort of declaration of victory over the “deep state” that tried to block his path back to power. Their presence will serve as official notice that he’ll be doing things his way in a second term, with everything that implies and entails.

And you know what? In a way, I can’t blame him.

If he’s reelected after four criminal indictments, a potential criminal conviction in Manhattan, two impeachments, a coup attempt, and an insurrection, it won’t be crazy for Trump to apply the reasoning I gave above with respect to abortion to his affronts to the constitutional order. Victory means, and can only mean, that Americans either actively support his authoritarianism or don’t care enough about it to deem it disqualifying.

Deliberately or not, they’ll have ratified his worst civic impulses. He’ll have a mandate for disaster.

With the justice system having now effectively thrown in the towel, the election system is the only American institution left with the power and legitimacy to thwart Trump. If that system turns around and delivers a victory for him, there’ll be nothing left to restrain him. He’ll believe he enjoys a popular mandate to challenge government institutions and the norms they enforce and will proceed accordingly.

All of this helps explain why, despite the dopey “Trump nostalgia” among the electorate, his second term will look different from his first. Voters lining up for him in the expectation that his presidency will be about fighting inflation are in for a surprise, in more ways than one. He’s going to misread the mandate they’re giving him, as presidents are wont to do, but this time the consequences of that misreading will be a lot more sinister than Build Back Better. 

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Nick Catoggio

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.