Barack Obama once said that a popular president can get away with anything, while an unpopular president can’t get away with anything. That proved true when his rising approval rating near the end of his tenure allowed him to accomplish quite a bit despite an opposition congress. Accordingly, those who want to neutralize or oust Donald Trump must do so by driving his approval rating so toxically low that the republicans in congress conclude they have no choice but to turn against him to protect themselves. So how does one drive down a president’s approval rating?
Donald Trump already has the lowest approval rating of any incoming U.S. president, dating back to as long as these things have been measured. But his average approval rating, while having trickled downward even further since he took office, is still somewhere around forty percent or slightly below. For reference, Richard Nixon’s allies in Congress didn’t strategically turn against him until his approval rating had dropped all the way into the twenties, as you can see on this historical Gallup chart. That means Trump’s detractors have to shave at least another ten points off his approval rating to force a change.
There are two keys to driving down Trump’s approval rating. The first is that his base will stick with him no matter what, and his detractors will stand against him no matter what. Neither of those groups can be swayed. But neither group comes close to being the majority, and thus neither is really a factor in the numbers. Shifting his approval rating is entirely about the convincing people who don’t yet have a strong feeling about him one way or the other. The second key is that you have to use the kinds of tactics and arguments that they’re going to think are important, and not merely the angles that you think are important.
We’re talking about the people who generally think both sides are the same: the ones who vaguely listen both sides, can’t figure out who’s telling the truth, and then go back to watching their favorite TV show. To people with strongly held political beliefs of any stripe, these middle-of-the-road types are maddening. And yet they’re the key to driving his approval rating down, because they’re only ones whose minds can be changed about him.
Some of the people who are still trying to keep an “open mind” about Donald Trump are political moderates, or are in the middle because they just don’t have political views. You can’t necessarily turns these types against Trump by pointing to his financial scandals, because these types believe that all politicians on both sides have financial scandals in roughly equal proportion. They also think all politicians lie in equal proportion. And you can’t just point them to the mounting evidence that Trump colluded with Russia, because there’s no smoking gun yet, and in the meantime there’s always someone whispering in their other ear that the Russia connections are “fake news.” Instead, what moderates care about is competence – or rather, lack thereof.
If you want to turn an undecided moderate against Trump, point out to them his gross incompetence. He and his administration keep making up absurd phony terrorist attacks like the Bowling Green Massacre. This makes him look massively incompetent. So does the fact that he’s introduced no meaningful legislation to congress so far, because he still has no idea how government works. His biggest executive order was so incompetently written that the courts had to throw it out. And he made such a foolish choice for National Security Advisor that the guy only lasted twenty-four days.
If you’re in the political middle and you don’t have a strong feeling for whether you think the left or the right has more virtue, you’re going to judge the politicians in office based on whether they can do the job competently. And so convincing the people in the middle to turn against him hinges largely on pointing out all the easily observed ways in which he’s doing the job incompetently.
Trump is also unique case in that a whole lot of American conservatives are still unsure what to think of him and his strangely erratic nature. It’s part of why he lost the popular vote by three millions votes, as so many traditional conservatives failed to turn out for him. Some of these undecided conservatives can be convinced to turn against him as well. But it has to be done in accordance with what matters to them.
Many conservatives like a strong leader who bowls people over and gets things done. They think winning is its own virtue. If you point out them that Donald Trump is abusing executive power in violation of the constitution, or unfairly beating up on the media, they may not be bothered by these bully tactics. In fact they may be impressed by that sort of thing. Instead, what conservatives hate is a weak leader.
If you want to turn undecided conservatives against Trump, point out that his Muslim ban failed, and whatever he was trying to accomplish with it went nowhere. Point out that he still can’t get Mexico to pay for his wall, and that he’s made no progress toward getting it built. Point out that he’s struggling to get his cabinet picks rammed through, because he lacks the strength to get his own people into place. And make sure you point out that he’s thus far failed to do anything about ObamaCare, which he spent the campaign insisting he would repeal on day one. The point is that, for all his bully tactics, Trump can’t seem to get anything done – and conservatives don’t respect weakness.
The bottom line: you won’t drive Donald Trump’s approval rating down by arguing with his loyal base, because most of them aren’t changing their minds any time soon. But half the country didn’t care enough about Trump one way or the other to even vote for or against him, and yet they still answer the phone when they get called for approval rating polls. So focus on them. Get them to pick a side. And it’s not enough to point out that he’s a dangerous and repulsively bigoted authoritarian who threatens the core of our democracy, or a traitor who conspired with Russia to rig the election. Absent a smoking gun, most moderates won’t believe it when you paint him as the devil, and most conservatives won’t even mind it.
You have to turn the undecided moderates and undecided conservatives against Donald Trump on their terms, not yours. Moderates abhor an incompetent leader. Conservatives abhor a weak leader. Trump has already done plenty such that he can be accurately painted as incompetent and weak. Use the appropriate examples and arguments with the appropriate people accordingly. Drive his approval rating down another ten points, and we just might be done with him.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report