A recent poll suggests Donald Trump is now roughly as popular as Barack Obama was at this point in his presidency. Various augurs will tell us what this means for the election, but the fact itself is worth considering. Our president is one of the most despised figures in modern American history. Multiple studies have shown more than 90 percent of news stories about Trump are negative. Why, then, do something like 44 percent of us now approve of his presidency?
One significant reason is that for millions of people, including a very considerable number of those who supported Trump's opponent in 2016, things are great right now. If you own stocks, for two years you have been making a great deal of money for doing absolutely nothing. Believe it or not, people like this feeling very much. And in case their private flourishing is not enough to justify this contentment, they can point to other measures — the low unemployment rate, for example — as evidence that "the economy" is doing right by the rest of the American people as well.
There is also something to be said for his renegotiation of NAFTA and his tariff war with China and the European Union. For every millionaire farmer bellyaching about the modest increases in costs that have accompanied his vastly reduced taxes, there is a retired autoworker who believes every new Ford Ranger that rolls off a factory floor in Michigan might as well have been assembled by the president himself. Finally, I think the congressional inertia that has allowed Trump to denounce the Affordable Care Act in front of sympathetic Republican audiences without subjecting them to the reality of a world in which Medicaid has not been expanded and pregnancy is legally considered a disease is one of the most enviable scenarios imaginable for a conservative politician.
But the best explanation for the enduring nature of Trump's appeal is that in office he has very largely done what he promised to do on the campaign trail two years ago. I do not mean that he has extricated the United States from her ill-fated Middle Eastern adventures or that he has carried out one of the most dizzying feats in the history of engineering and construction by erecting a vast barrier along our entire southern border. I am referring to the actual content of his 2016 campaign. What Trump continues to offer his supporters — and, perhaps even more so, his critics — is the ability to participate in myth.
For his fans Trump more fully than any chief executive in living memory inhabits the office of the presidency, which he has invested with an almost monarchic character. For many within the conservative movement who blanched at the compromises of George W. Bush's presidency, he is a hero whose iron will and contempt for received wisdom have enabled him to rise, like Siegfried, above the wretched consensus and destroy not merely their enemies but the worldview that gave rise to them. For others who lack these ideological commitments he is simply a "fighter," a bad-ass, someone who tells it like it is. Millions of Americans whose non-existent stock portfolios have not been inflated, whose wages have failed to rise, whose health-care costs are still crippling, are devoted to him for these and a hundred other reasons that are as powerful as they are ineffable.
To his critics, Trump is, of course, a leering syphilitic dictator, a vicious bigot who has harnessed the vast machinery of the executive branch to immiserate the weak, the poor, the marginalized. He has brought America to the brink of a civil war, albeit one that will be won not with firearms but with tweets and novelty headgear and impolite remarks to politicians in airports.
Beneath both of these swollen fantasies lies the truth that during the nearly two years this thrice-divorced philandering television star has been in office more than 70,000 people have died of drug overdose, hundreds of thousands of babies have been aborted, police officers have continued to shoot innocent persons in cold blood while teenagers in increasing numbers have mutilated their bodies and even taken their own lives; witches have cursed the Supreme Court; residents of the seventh largest city in the 10th largest state are afraid to drink water or bathe their children; "essential oils" and "the blockchain" have become major industries, alongside legal dope and pornography and streaming video.
These things recede before the legend of Trump, whose appeal resists and ultimately transcends quantification because it is universal. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.