Opinion

Early lessons of the Trump whirlwind

Trumpism might save the GOP — unless President Trump gets in the way

We're just a week into Donald Trump's presidency. But already, you can see how this brand of politics could wind up being a viable model for future Republican majorities — or a Pyrrhic victory for the GOP.

Trumpism is potentially very popular. A Morning Consult poll taken after the president's inaugural address found voters responding favorably to his "America First" message (taken both literally and seriously, without the phrase's historical baggage). When Trump said, "From this moment on, it's going to be America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families," 65 percent agreed, including 64 percent of independents and half of Democrats. Roughly six in ten, including 48 percent of Democrats, agreed with Trump that the federal government should "buy American and hire American."

But it goes beyond the polls. This week Trump met at the White House with labor leaders who had mostly supported Hillary Clinton during the campaign. The union bosses came away raving.

"He intends to do the work on the issues he discussed on the campaign trail," said North America's Building Trades Unions president Sean McGarvey. "It was by far the best meeting I've had" in the nation's capital.

The Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, which Trump greenlighted, actually split the Democratic coalition far more than most media coverage suggests. Environmentalists adamantly oppose the projects, but labor unions were often supportive — because these pipelines and others like them have the potential to create jobs for their members.

Unions are also with Trump on trade, which is helpful politically. His willingness to slap tariffs on companies offshoring jobs, or at least generate bad PR for them, will almost certainly produce more Carrier-type deals and make CEOs think twice about closing factories. And the president's infrastructure program has a good chance of delivering tangible employment results for union workers.

Just as Trump carried Rust Belt states that hadn't voted Republican at the presidential level since the 1980s, he has an opportunity to peel off a core Democratic constituency if he can make Trumpism work.

That's a big "if." But the bigger problem is that while Trumpism is popular, Trump himself remains deeply divisive. The same poll that showed broad public support for the inaugural address' themes showed a closer split on the speech itself, likely reflecting Americans' views of the man who delivered it.

Trump's approval ratings are anemic, generally stuck around 45 percent. That wouldn't be terrible if he had just weathered some major crisis or rammed through controversial legislation. But it is awfully low for the "honeymoon period," when approval ratings usually have nowhere to go but down.

The character flaws that plagued Trump throughout the campaign have reared their ugly head in arguments about inaugural crowd sizes and baseless claims about illegal voting, designed to assuage his discomfort with losing the popular vote. Trump has taken on a big job and promises "big league" results. But he often seems like a very small man.

An even larger problem is that so many Americans — women, minorities, millennials — think the president actually hates them. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both tried to unite the country but failed. In the end, too many Americans didn't see themselves in one or the other president's vision for the country. Pace Obama's 2004 Democratic convention speech, it turned out there was a liberal America and a conservative America. Not even presidents who saw themselves as uniters, not dividers, could put it back together.

Trump, however, has never even tried to be a uniter. His main political impulses are that his base rules and in times of controversy the best defense is a good offense. His first foray into national politics was to help lead the birther movement.

Unity is important for a political movement that seeks to be grounded in a pan-ethnic American nationalism. Trump, or people around him, do seem to understand this on some level. That's why the president proclaimed, "It's time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots."

Yet even when Trump tries to sound like Jack Kemp, too many people hear George Wallace. The "carnage" he decries includes the deaths of black people in Chicago, but most interpret this as hysterical or condescending.

For the GOP, a successful Trump adds the old Industrial Midwest to the party's national Electoral College column, giving Republicans a viable path to 270 while they still try to figure out their problems with millennials and minorities. If Trumpism works, it will produce economic gains for working-class voters of color too. And his immigration restrictions could over time facilitate Latino assimilation.

Or Trump's rhetoric, combined with a failure to deliver on jobs, might alienate these voters forever. The states that ever so narrowly went for Trump last year could all flip back to the Democrats, and the GOP's demographic problems would be worse than ever before.

Years from now, Republicans will either look back on the Trump years fondly or wish they had lost to Hillary Clinton.

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