More so than it initially appeared, there may be method to this madness: The sheer profusion of Trump controversies makes it difficult for the press, the partisan opposition, or the public to focus very long on one before the next supplants it. And for many of Trump’s core supporters, the constant conflict proves he will take the fight to all the institutions they believe have failed them.
But the unprecedented concern about Trump in polling since the election also signals he may be miscalculating how much turmoil most Americans will tolerate from a president. “This constant badgering and tweeting may talk to his base, but it’s not growing his base,” said Tom Davis, who served as a Republican representative from Virginia and chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “They have to grow the base or they have a midterm problem.”
Indeed, amid all the swirling currents, the clearest message of Trump’s transition is that he has narrowed his support since Election Day, rather than expanding it as almost all of his predecessors did. In Gallup polling dating back through 1953, no new president has ever taken office with a positive job-approval rating from less than 51 percent of adults (Ronald Reagan in 1981 and George H.W. Bush in 1989) or a disapproval rating higher than 25 percent (George W. Bush in 2001). All indications are that Trump will start in a much weaker position.
Results from this week’s flurry of polls capture an unprecedented level of unease about a new president. In an ABC/Washington Post survey, just 40 percent approved of Trump’s handling of the transition, and just 40 percent said they had a favorable personal impression of him. Only 44 percent said they mostly trusted Trump “to make the right decisions for the country’s future.” Other public surveys have returned very similar findings.
Polls during the transition offer some good news for Trump. On dealing with jobs and terrorism, the public’s expectations are more optimistic than these overall assessments. And he retains solid support from whites without a college degree (though even among those voters his transition approval is lagging his Election Day vote share).
Yet the bigger story is the hardening of opposition to Trump among the groups always most skeptical of him. In that ABC/Washington Post survey, Trump faced disapproval for his transition performance from nearly 55 percent of white college graduates, almost three-fifths of Millennials, two-thirds of adults in urban areas, and three-fourths of minorities.
These numbers may not dissuade congressional Republicans from initially locking arms with him to pass an agenda where their interests overlap—particularly in repealing the Affordable Care Act, cutting taxes, and retrenching federal regulation. But if Trump continues to provoke such public resistance, it will inexorably make it tougher for him to manage Capitol Hill, because nothing has greater impact on modern congressional elections than the president’s standing.