Future historians will probably debate many points about the presidency of Donald J. Trump for a very long time. They’ll weigh questions like: how is it that he got elected in the first place? How did he take over the Republican Party? How, when handed a political opportunity in an election year — a pandemic to manage that made many governors more popular than ever — he zagged and went the other way? Does it say more about Trump or Democrats that he was impeached twice?
Some of those debates will never be settled, but the arguments will be based on a set of facts. And here is a fact most will assuredly cite: Trump was consistently the most unpopular president since polling began.
Among all the Gallup approval rating polls throughout his four years in office, Trump averaged an approval rating of only 41 percent. This makes him the most unpopular president since Gallup began measuring presidents in 1938, and four points lower than the second-most unpopular president, Harry Truman.
During the final days of the Trump presidency, polls conducted by CNN, Gallup, and Quinnipiac University all found less than 35 percent of Americans approved of how he handled the job. His approval ratings declined in the weeks after the election as he refused to concede and incited a mob that stormed the Capitol. Only Trump and former president Jimmy Carter have lost ground in approval ratings during their lame-duck periods.
Given that there are just hours left in his presidency, and his age, there very little that Trump can do to turn around his legacy of being a chaotic and deeply unpopular president. In fact, his last official acts as president probably won’t help those poll numbers: he and his wife have refused to participate in any traditional handing off ceremonies at the White House. Further, he is expected to issue potentially dozens of presidential pardons, many of them controversial.
The way he is going out raises questions about whether his post-presidency will be just as unique historically as his presidency. Trump has moved out of Manhattan and will now reside in the Republican enclave of Palm Beach. It is unclear what he will do politically there, especially as his social media access has been restricted. Will he be something of an entertainer, selling tickets for arena rallies where he talks about issues of the day and invites celebrities and local politicians to join him on stage? Will there even be a presidential library? If so, it will likely not have the list of corporate donors others have had.
The thing that continues to be confounding about Trump is that his presidency didn’t have to go this way. Trump has no ideological core; he was a pro-choice Democrat for most of his career. He was as transactional as they come and had a need to be loved and adored.
The promises from aides that Trump would “pivot” away from chaos and bullying when the 2016 general election began, or when he became president, or after the 2018 midterm elections never happened, of course. But it was logical enough: All Trump had to do was to start off with a tone that the new sheriff in town was sick of politicians getting nothing done, and signal that he was willing to do popular things like infrastructure improvements or innovate with non-partisan ideas on health care or even immigration to break decades-long legislative stalemates.
In other words, he would use his background in the Art of the Deal to make Washington, well deal, even in the way he wanted. One look at Trump’s successful push for criminal justice reform and you could see how it was possible.
But other than that moment, Trump cared entirely about his political base. And in the end, that is all he is left with.