It increasingly seems that the fate of Donald Trump’s presidency will be settled by that old political standby: public opinion.
By all reports, Democrats have more than enough votes in the House of Representatives to impeach Trump — that is, to indict him for “high crimes and misdemeanors” and to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate. This now seems inevitable. In the Senate, Chief Justice John Roberts would preside over a full-fledged trial, with 67 votes (two-thirds) required to convict. Even assuming that all Democrats vote for conviction, they would still need 20 GOP votes. For now, the Democrats have zero.
What this suggests is we’re entering an extended period of political theater. Democrats will cast Trump as an unstable law breaker whose erratic leadership threatens the country. Meanwhile, Republicans will deplore the “witch hunt” (Trump’s words) against a president who has fulfilled many of his 2016 campaign promises — perpetuating the economic recovery; overhauling trade policy; and winding down prolonged wars.
This melodrama promises to be fascinating and, quite probably, demoralizing. Where will public opinion settle? Who knows? I have been writing a column continuously for 43 years. One early lesson is that public opinion is exceptionally hard to predict.
It presumes a rational world of high-minded debate that leads to political consensus. The great virtue of democracy, in this view, is that it both leads to superior policies and ensures that those policies will enjoy public support.
Unfortunately, that is not how the system works.
Our debates unleash ferocious lobbying, expressions of narrow self-interest and exaggerated claims and counter-claims. The aspect that has always interested me the most is the practical difficulty in getting people to change their minds, even when circumstances and conditions shift. Once people take a position on something, they are not easily dislodged.
There are reasons for this. People define themselves by their beliefs. It’s who they are and want to be. Changing this means, to some extent, repudiating who they are. It’s a time-consuming and emotionally draining process. For individuals, it implies that he or she was once wrong or, at least, not right. This may also be perceived as a sign of weakness. Given these realities, public opinion is often rigid.
This may work to Trump’s advantage. As has been often noted, his so-called “base” has shown remarkable stability. His approval rating, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll, has fluctuated in a narrow band, between 36 percent and 44 percent (the average is 39 percent) since April 2017. At least for his core supporters, Trump has seemed remarkably adept at controlling the narrative of his presidency.
On the other hand, some views have shifted dramatically over time. Take gay marriage. In 1988, NORC at the University of Chicago asked on its survey whether gay people should have the right to marry. Only 12 percent agreed; by 2018, the figure was 68 percent. Yet as Tom Smith of NORC explains, “a big part of that is generational change” — not the same people altering their views but a younger, more diverse cohort with different views.
Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute notes that the legalization of marijuana has followed a similar trajectory. Approval has risen from 12 percent in 1969 to 28 percent in 1977 and 66 percent in 2019, reports Gallup. The steepest gains have occurred among the youngest cohort; 80 percent of millennials (those born from 1980 to 2000) favored legalization, compared with 61 percent of baby boomers (born from 1946 to 1964).
As these examples show, public opinion is in a state of flux. The cohesion that Trump has achieved among his supporters presents a formidable challenge to Democrats. Their whole strategy is premised on the hope that further shocking revelations will alter the political climate. Trump’s image will be so shattered that Republican senators will feel free to join the revolt against him.
It will be easy to tell the victors from the vanquished. Just count the number of Republicans who vote for conviction. Let the battle begin.