With the Russia scandal and self-inflicted wounds paralyzing his White House, it’s easy to lose sight of the tectonic forces that powered President Trump’s victory last year. But they continue to exist, and they’re a major reason why he remains remarkably popular among Republicans.
Republican lobbyist Bruce Mehlman, who has long represented technology companies, sees parallels between the cycle of disruption that’s churned through Silicon Valley and what’s now wreaking havoc on Washington.
“The forces that set the stage for Donald Trump’s election are long-term, structural and global,” Mehlman told me this week. “Much like Uber, Trump perceived the opportunity to reach directly to the public to disrupt a dysfunctional marketplace that lacked innovation and failed to satisfy consumers. Also much like Uber, he flouted conventions and tested the limits of traditional rules, fighting the entrenched establishment while seeking its acceptance . . . Disruption is hard and, well, disruptive. It usually leaves observers feeling exhausted, uncertain and ultimately either angry or exhilarated.”
In a new PowerPoint presentation for his clients, Mehlman notes that voters sought change in five of the past six elections. Exit polls last November showed that a candidate’s ability to “bring change” mattered far more to voters than whether they had the “right experience” or “good judgment.”
— How did we get here? Mehlman diagnoses seven long-term trends that are both symptomatic of and drivers of disruption:
1) Substantial social change. The United States is a very different place than it was 50 years ago. In 1967, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans controlled 27 percent of the wealth. Now they have 42 percent. Fewer than one in 10 kids were born out of wedlock; now it’s four in 10. Foreign-born people make up three times the share of the U.S. population (15 percent) as they did then. There are vastly more women in the workforce, vastly fewer whites with no college degree and one-third of 18- to 34-year-olds now live with their parents.
2) Accelerating technological change. It used to take 387,923 workers to manufacture $1 billion in goods. Now it takes 26,785. It took 75 years for the telephone to reach 100 million homes after it was invented. It took just a few months for Candy Crush to reach that milestone.
3) Weakened anchor institutions. Seven in 10 adults were married in 1967. Now it’s 50 percent. Three in 10 workers were members of labor unions then. Now it’s 11 percent. Two-thirds of Americans trusted government. It’s never been close to that since Vietnam and Watergate. The latest studies show only about 20 percent of the country trusts the feds to do the right thing.
4) The loss of honest brokers. Trust in media has been on a steady decline among not just Republicans but also Democrats and independents since Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America in 1972.
5) Leaders over-promised and under-delivered. Mehlman cites four examples: Barack Obama told people they could keep their doctors if they liked them under Obamacare. Dick Cheney said Americans would be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq. Bill Clinton said he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. George H.W. Bush told the country to read his lips as he promised no new taxes.
6) Politicians deferred hard choices. Entitlement spending has eaten up a bigger and bigger share of the federal budget, and Washington has lacked the political will to make tough choices. Mandatory spending rose from 53 percent of the budget in 1976 to 69 percent in 2016.
7) The parties have lost their primacy. Outside groups, which tend to be more ideological and focused on single issues, have made the Republican and Democratic Party apparatuses less relevant since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. This has empowered plutocrats.
— Most insiders believe that next year’s midterms will become the sixth change election in the past seven cycles. The only question is whether it will be a big enough wave to let Democrats win the House.
— What remains remarkable about the past six months is how durable the president’s support has been among Republicans. Despite objectively losing almost every news cycle since he took office, Trump’s approval rating among GOP voters is still at the same level in Gallup’s tracking polls as George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan at this point in their presidencies.
The number who “strongly approve” of the job Trump is doing has slipped, though, and a few recent polls have suggested that another split is starting to emerge too. Mehlman notes that the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked people who voted for the president whether they did so because they were “for” him or “against” Hillary Clinton. Among the 60 percent who said they said they voted for Trump, 95 percent approve of the job he’s doing. Among the 40 percent who got behind him because they were against Clinton, his approval rating slipped from 87 percent in February to 81 percent in June.
Trump has also not expanded his base. The 35 percent of independents who approve of how Trump is doing is even lower than the 38 percent who approved of Gerald Ford after he pardoned Richard Nixon. It’s lower at the six-month mark than for any president since Gallup began tracking under Dwight Eisenhower.
The same goes for his approval among Democrats. At this point in Obama’s presidency, 20 percent of Republicans still approved of him. Only 8 percent of Democrats approve of Trump.
Mehlman, a lifelong Republican, notes that Democrats are right to be encouraged by their strength in the generic ballot, their overperformance in recent special elections and the surge of new candidates filing to run. But he also notes that neither party enjoys the kind of polling advantages on individual issues that they did before the most recent waves in 2014 and 2006. The closest is health care: The WSJ/NBC poll gave Democrats a 17-point edge on which party is best suited to handle it. In 2006, though, Democrats had a 31-point advantage on health care.
— So what’s going to get done this year? “Congress will do what it must,” said Mehlman, a partner at the bipartisan firm Mehlman, Castagnetti, Rosen & Thomas. That means passing a bunch of funding and extension bills by Sept. 30, as well as reauthorizing FISA surveillance by Dec. 31. He thinks a short-term government shutdown (“two weeks”) is possible this fall. He’s unsure about Congress’s ability to pass a big-ticket bill on health care and forecasts tax cuts rather than a paid-for permanent overhaul of the tax code. Mehlman’s somewhat pessimistic view comports with what I’m hearing from other plugged-in GOP lobbyists on K Street.