Donald Trump is a toxin in the American political bloodstream, and the resulting symptoms are not only ugly and unpleasant but also dangerous. Among the signs are expressions of racial prejudice, religious bigotry, sexism and violent hostility for those deemed to be unacceptably different. It’s a debilitating malady.
Trump was an abnormal presidential candidate, indulging in overt antipathy for foreigners, crude slurs against women, juvenile insults of political rivals and nonstop lies on matters big and small. But he won the election, giving rise to fears that he represented the true character of the American public.
On a daily basis, Trump does things that would have grievously damaged previous presidents. It’s impossible to imagine George W. Bush telling nonwhite members of Congress to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Barack Obama would never have called a poor, white, rural county in a “disgusting” place “where no human being would want to live.”
Both Bush and Obama were fully capable of rising to the occasion when Americans were in pain. On the rare occasions when Trump is obligated to voice conciliatory, unifying sentiments, as he did after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, his words carry no conviction or credibility.
Most Americans expect the worst from him. So they could not have been surprised that he couldn’t make a condolence call on those cities without trashing local Democratic leaders.
There are two striking facts about his presidency. The first is that he did not adapt to meet longstanding expectations of how the highest elected official in the land should behave. If anything, winning the 2016 election inflamed his worst instincts.
The second, more encouraging, discovery is that Trump’s abnormality still looks conspicuously abnormal. Americans have not defined presidential deviancy down. They have not jettisoned their beliefs about what a president should do and not do. Even people who approve of his overall performance in office have no fondness for many of his habits.
Americans who feel distress, shame and anger at Trump’s policies may be tempted to assume that all the people who voted for him share his worst traits. But they don’t. Voting is usually a binary choice between unsatisfactory options, and factors such as ideology, religion and party heavily sway decisions.
Going into the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton had the second-highest unfavorable rating of any major party nominee since 1956 – worse than that of Barry Goldwater, who, in 1964, got a puny 39% of the vote in a two-person race. Plenty of Americans voted against Clinton, settling for Trump only as the lesser of two evils.
Their reservations help explain his persistently low approval rating. Since February 2017, Gallup has found, at least half of Americans have disapproved of how he has done his job, with spikes as high as 60%. His approval figure has sunk as low as 35% and has never risen above 46%. When Barack Obama left office, by contrast, 59% of Americans had a positive view of his performance, with 37% disapproving.
While regularly making use of racist code, Trump claims to be “the least racist person anywhere in the world.” Most people are not fooled. A July Quinnipiac Poll found that fully 51% of voters say he is indeed racist, with 45% disagreeing.
The public is not blind to his many serious defects of character and personality. An August YouGov/Economist survey found that a majority of people do not believe he is honest, intelligent, inspiring, patriotic, strong or sincere. Just 18% deny that he is hypocritical, and 9% say he is not arrogant.
Only 21% regard him as a good role model for children, according to a March Quinnipiac poll. Just 20% think he is more honest than most previous occupants of the Oval Office.
“Trumpian” can mean many different things, but in almost any company, it is not a term of praise. Republican pollster Gene Ulm told The Atlantic, “You have a lot of people (who) like everything he’s doing but would never have him (over) for dinner.”
With his brazen appeal to dark impulses, Trump has encouraged hateful elements in American society. At the same time, he has awakened people of goodwill to cherish and defend the values that he threatens.
Trumpism has infected the American polity like a foul pathogen. But it has also stimulated a powerful immune response that just may leave us stronger in the end.