The pundit disconnect

It’s not news that many pundits, both on the left and the right, dislike Trump, who is possibly the most polarizing politician in recent history, but the reasons are not always as simple as ideological differences, but rather due to fundamental differences in how pundits see the world versus how most of Trump’s voters do. Some of these pundits are even former Trump supporters but for various reasons have turned their backs on him.

Here are some examples. From The American Conservative, The Biggest Losers of Trump’s Presidency: His Voters; His incompetence and incoherence guarantees that he’ll be a one-term president.

Trump’s great political feat was that he opened up a new fault line in politics: the elites of the coasts versus the heartland masses; the globalist upper crust versus the nationalist middle; anti-working class liberalism versus conservative populism. In truth, this fault line was already there, roiling American politics just beneath the surface. But Trump had the instincts to see what just about everyone else missed—that these subterranean angers could be pulled up and harnessed into an electoral coalition that could win the White House.

The operative word here is “instincts,” for it was clear that Trump operated only on the surface of things. He lacked the thinking skills and even the vocabulary to go any deeper. But it is below the surface where the great political battles are waged. That’s where coherent arguments and narratives are pieced together. It’s where politicians craft the language they need to communicate effectively with the people. It’s where coalitions are galvanized.

From Ann Coulter (here and here):

“Why would you [vote for him again]?” the provocative author and columnist asked. “To make sure, I don’t know, Ivanka [Trump] and Jared [Kushner] can make money? That seems to be the main point of the presidency at this point.”

“They’re about to have a country where no Republican will ever be elected president again,” she added. “Trump will just have been a joke presidency who scammed the American people, amused the populists for a while, but he’ll have no legacy whatsoever.”

And more complaining:

For two years, Trump pretended to believe the president of the United States needs express authorization from Congress to defend the nation’s borders and blamed the Republican majority for not “funding” the wall.

In a few weeks, he’ll start blaming the Democratic House.

Last week — several whole days ago — Trump said over and over again that he would shut down the government if he didn’t get funding for the wall — the precise thing he claims he needs. “We need border security. The wall is a part of border security,” he said. “If we don’t have border security, we’ll shut down the government.”

From Ross Douthat, a long-time vocal critic of Trump and technically still ideologically affiliated with the ‘right’, likens Trump to a con man:

In the United States the populists theoretically hold the White House, under a president who promised to be a traitor to his class. Except that these promises were mostly just a con job, the Trump inner circle is a parliament of opportunists, and his administration’s policy agenda has been steered by the Republican Party’s business elite rather than by the voters who elected him.

A common theme in these essays is that Trump is betraying his voters by not doing enough.

Regarding The American Conservative, I agree to some extent that Trump has fallen short of his campaign hype (but expectations were unrealistically high to begin with), but disagree strongly with the author that Trump’s reelection is in jeopardy or that voters feel betrayed.

As I show with the example of Trump tweeting about Amazon costing the USPS “big money,” conveying action is as effective as policy. Trump knows he does not have the power to to force any company to conform to his wishes. It would require an act of Congress. If he tried to sign such an executive order, it would almost certainly be overturned. So why does he make such threats despite near-impossibly of ever delivering on them? That is his style, and it’s an effective strategy. He’s throwing meat to his base, which boosts enthusiasm. But also, the media also reports it, which helps create the illusion of action having been taken even if nothing has actually happened. I remember those Tweets about Amazon and the USPS in April. If you polled Trump’s supporters, maybe some would think that Trump kicked Amazon’s butt, but in reality nothing changed.

Politics is not about policy or about keeping campaign promises, but about sentiment. I regularly speak with someone who is even a bigger Trump supporter than I am. He never brings up policy but rather how “Trump conveys being anti-establishment,” “is a strait shooter who tells it like it is,” “someone who is unfairly subjected by the left,” and most importantly, “he’s not a democrat and not Hillary.” No mention of specific policy such as walls or immigration unless I bring it up. Pundits, maybe because they are less tribalistic and perhaps smarter than the average voter, tend to think less in terms of sentiment and more in terms of policy.

Ann also writes, “On the basis of his self-interest alone, he must know that if he doesn’t build the wall, he has zero chance of being re-elected and a 100 percent chance of being utterly humiliated.”

Trump reneging on the wall does not threaten his reelection hopes. The vast majority of people voting for Trump are voting for him because he’s not a Democrat. That is literally the only reason. Elections are won on the margins by capturing those invaluable swing states, and that is how Trump won. It’s plausible that anti-immigration sentiment helped Trump win those states, but failing to build the wall in his first term does not mean he loses those voters, because of sentiment.

Trump’s win was a statistical fluke, not a harbinger of change. The media overestimated Hillary’s odds, and she was not inevitable, but betting on Hillary winning was the ‘rational choice’ based on the preponderance of polling data. The media, including pundits such as Tucker Carlson keep pushing this narrative that there is a huge backlash against elites and that society is undergoing a tectonic anti-elitist populist uprising all over Europe and elsewhere, yet the evidence shows that such a transformation is mostly illusory and most people outside of the pundit-sphere are indifferent to elites. generates a ton of discussion, but offline, it seems most people don’t care that much about manufacturing jobs going away or George Soros having too much power. A few protests in Europe does make for a transformation. As for Trump being a messianic figure who speaks to people’s unspoken anxiety about elites, keep in mind Romney got a greater percentage of popular vote than Trump despite being the opposite of Trump in terms of rhetoric and temperament. Romney is the polar opposite of Trump yet got 48% of the popular vote compared to Trump’s 46%. If Trump’s message was really so popular and resonate, his approval rating would be a lot higher than 41% and he would have gotten maybe 50% of the popular vote, similar to Reagan and Obama. Yes, Trump’s stance on immigration may have won him the nomination, but it has not resonated as well with the general population.

Third, politicians are remembered for what they do, not what they promised and didn’t do. Unless Trump screws up totally (such as raising taxes as Bush infamously did), it will be very difficult to for Trump to sabotage his presidency. People remember George W. Bush for the Iraq War and his response to 911 and Katrina, not for reneging on his 2000 campaign promise to reform Social Security.

Also, pundits tend to be idealists who seek uncompromising purity and adherence to a ‘grand vision’, but Trump is more of a realpolitik guy, who despite the outward appearance of toughness has shown a willingness to compromise and backpedal if necessary. But also idealists have unrealistic expectations. Consider Ross Douthat. Ross is an idealist at heart. He wants a politician who embodies the Kantian ‘ideal’ of leadership, duty, service, etc. and current politicians fall short of that ideal. He does not want mob rule or populism. He understands the appeal of Trump, but hates how he is executing on it. The problem with idealism is that one idealization of perfection is unobtainable or always moving target.

Overall, pundits overestimate the efficacy of politicians, are too idealistic, and overestimate the accountability of politicians (if Trump does not do X, Y will happen). If a public company fails to meet earnings estimates, the stock falls. In school or work, if you fall short, you are punished or there is some sort of consequence, but it does not work that way in politics.