OPINION | DIANE HESSAN
LESLEY BECKER/GLOBE STAFF
DONALD TRUMP has now been president of the United States for 129 days. When I asked 200 Trump voters how long it seems to them that Trump has been in office, the average answer was 88 days. For the sample of 200 Hillary Clinton voters, the average is 1,024 days. These two groups are living in different realities.
Democrats have generally had what they say is a “good” month, filled with news that affirms their belief that President Trump is, as one voter said, “a lying, demented moron.” News of Russian connections, possible obstruction of justice, tax plans that hurt the poor and sick, as well as drama in the West Wing, are drowning out the news about productive overseas meetings. Many Democrats have told me they believe this is the time when the Trump base will finally crack.
Based on my ongoing research, Trump voters are as confident and supportive of their president as ever. Many have told me that the supposed scandals have become background noise to them; news of James Comey, James Clapper, Michael Flynn, and Jared Kushner is merely the shrieking of a liberal media out to get their leader. They see no meltdown and, like an exercise in tai chi, the more they experience resistance, the more powerful they feel.
Why don’t they see the collapse that the Democrats do?
It all starts with how and why they voted for Trump in the first place. Certainly there are the Trump voters who loved and believed his messages and who took to his nonpolitical style. Many Trump voters, however, didn’t like him that much, but they believed that they had no other choice. They saw Clinton as so corrupt as to be unimaginable as president. Just as Democrats can now make a long list of mistakes that Trump has made since he became president, Trump supporters list Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, pay-for-play, the use of a private e-mail server, WikiLeaks, and a countless list of other headline topics: Huma’s Laptop, Bill Clinton’s Treatment of Women, the Loretta Lynch Airplane Conversation, Peeking at Debate Questions Beforehand, and so on. These voters are so sure that the Clintons are corrupt that they would rather have a sometimes sloppy and unpredictable leader than “those two crooks” in the White House.
This view colors their perception of Trump administration “scandals.” We recently heard H.R. McMaster justify the president’s sharing of classified information with the Russians by noting that the president may not have known the information was classified. Democrats were appalled, but Trump’s base saw this as “The Hillary Defense”: Clinton said she didn’t have classified information on her private server, but when investigators identified some, nobody insisted that she be prosecuted. This base hates the hypocrisy: “Why is it awful to attack women, but OK to attack Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Huckabee?” asks Sharon from Arizona. “Why didn’t Obama get criticized at wanting to reset the relationship with Russia?” asks Harold from Texas. And, asks Merrill of Tennessee, “How can we call a note from Comey, a fired employee, even comparable to actual Watergate tapes, including the smoking gun of 1972?”
Regardless of whether you accept these justifications, they are rational. This is not a group of people who blindly follow the president and ignore all of his flaws.
The key to what happens next is the 40 percent of my 400 voters who are now unhappy with both Trump and his opponents. They are disappointed with the president, but feel they have nowhere to go. They describe themselves as “drained.” Their revulsion at Trump’s appetite for chaos has not driven them to the Democrats. They worry about a world full of problems that won’t be addressed because of all of the distractions. They fret that countries won’t know how to work with us if we are divided and focused on possible scandals. They cringe at the thought that Hillary Clinton wants to lead them out of the wilderness. They want fresh faces and fresh ideas more than they want resistance.
This third group of voters is in play. Democrats could inspire them with a new path forward, a positive set of programs that addresses the pain that enabled Trump to win. Congressional Republicans could similarly attract them to a more rational and beneficial set of policies than Trump’s obsession with walls and coal miners. No one so far has risen up to inspire these voters. Whoever does will determine the next three years of American politics.
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