Step back from the daily headlines of the Trump administration.
After almost 6 months under President Trump and the 115th Congress, the United States is in a strange position: Republicans enjoy a decisive partisan advantage, controlling the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives.
Yet GOP officials have no mandate to govern. (And neither, of course, do Democrats.) The country is adrift as a result, even amid significant challenges that confront it at home and abroad. And it is likely to stay adrift through the 2018 midterms, when voters can next send a clear signal about their preferred course.
Until then, Trump’s allies will remain frustrated by the stiff opposition their champion faces. Some cast that opposition as illegitimate, given that Trump won the 2016 election. They insist that allegations about collusion with Russia and entrenched opposition from the bureaucracy are unfairly stymieing the White House.
But even if Trump is vindicated on Russia and gains greater sway over the federal workforce, this fact will remain: Voters preferred his opponent by a margin of more than 2 million, even though the Democratic nominee was a weak, corrupt candidate.
Yes, the Electoral College confers absolute legitimacy on its winner.
But it cannot confer an accompanying mandate on a candidate who loses the popular vote by so much. In fact, asked after the election if Trump had a mandate to carry out the agenda he campaigned on, or if he should compromise on matters that his Democratic rivals strongly oppose, just 29 percent of Americans said he had a mandate. And even that 29 percent may feel differently about matters where Trump campaigned on one agenda only to pursue a distinct or contrary course in office.
Trump’s initial lack of a mandate has been underscored by his consistently dismal approval ratings. A clear, growing majority says it disapproves of his performance. Nate Silver reports that even part of his base seems to be eroding: “There’s been a considerable decline in the number of Americans who strongly approve of Trump, from a peak of around 30 percent in February to just 21 or 22 percent of the electorate now.”
The Republican Congress (and its own dismal approval rating) only complicates matters.
All of its members were duly elected, too. Most of those senators and representatives ran on platforms that clash bigly with Trump on immigration, trade, foreign policy, or some other vital matter. (The GOP’s primary electorate may have rejected Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz as presidents; but voters in Florida, Kentucky, and Texas Senate races chose them, even as voters in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district chose him over a Trumpian challenger.)
At times, divides among Republicans are as sharp as their disagreements with Democrats, as Americans have witnessed watching GOP attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare. Doing so has proved so difficult in large part because both Donald Trump and Republican leaders in Congress were long unwilling to level with the public about the tradeoffs that must be made to reshape the health-care system.
They promised a costless improvement on Obamacare.
Trump’s inconsistent rhetoric on health care and his preferences on infrastructure spending sometimes seem to align with Democrats more strongly than with those of Republicans—and little surprise, given his previous incarnations as a registered Democrat, his donations to Democrats, and the praise he once lavished on the Clintons. But Democratic legislators will have a hard time compromising with Trump even on matters where their beliefs overlap, given how fully he has alienated the party’s base with the charge that Obama is a secret Kenyan, the claim that Mexico is sending us rapists, and the boast that famous men are able to grab women by their genitals without asking.
Some conservatives are similarly unwilling to support Trump because they believe his glaring defects in character and judgment outweigh any policy agreements. And internal disagreements within both political parties are likely to go unresolved so long as Trump is in office because his polarizing quality has only intensified the degree to which American politics is now composed of people driven by their antagonism to other factions more than by their attraction to any positive agenda for the country.
Trump began his tenure by suggesting that a country so divided would be failing. “We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity,” he declared in his inaugural address. “When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.” The ensuing months have confirmed what was evident at the time: America will never be united under Trump, a divisive man who cannot even unite his own party behind a coherent agenda.
“A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions,” he declared. But as long as he is president, tens of millions will rightly or wrongly regard him as a stain on America’s character and regard his tenure as a national shame.
Those are the stark political realities that the Trump administration and the GOP Congress will keep facing, even if resolution comes in the Russia investigation, the still-hidden tax returns, Trump family profits from foreign dealings, the leaky White House, and the national-security officials who mistrust their commander in chief. While those realities persist, America will prove unable to solve most of the significant problems that confront it at home or abroad. It is a handicap of our own making.