Trump is the rearguard, not the vanguard

Most readers are probably sick of inauguration coverage; I know I am. Instead I want to point you to something that deals with some more underlying characteristics of American politics, and which happens to convey a surprisingly hopeful message.

The piece is by Reuben Fischer-Baum and Dhrumil Mehta at FiveThirtyEight, in which they’ve collated opinion polling from the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency and presented it in a neat interactive graph.

The headline data series is a familiar one, Obama’s approval rating. It falls sharply at the start of his term and stays reasonably flat from there, rising noticeably in both election years (2012 and 2016). Approval of Congress starts from a much lower base, falls a bit less sharply, and stays down.

Almost half of the others that they plot refer to various aspects of Obama’s job performance, and the majority mirror the approval ratings. I don’t think any of these are very informative: partly because they don’t tell you why people are satisfied or not (someone who disapproves “of Obama’s handling of the situation in Iraq”, for example, could think he was too belligerent or not belligerent enough), but also because too often they’re determined by general political reasons. Voting intention tends to drive opinions on political issues, rather than the other way around.

The most dramatic example of that is the question of holding “an unfavorable view of Russia”. From a low of just over 40% in early 2011, that rose steadily to 70% four years later, before easing slightly and then plunging during 2016 to just over 50%. No doubt you could find other possible reasons for that movement, but the obvious one is the appearance of a pro-Russian presidential candidate with a loyal following who were disposed to echo his policy pronouncements.

Where it gets interesting, though, is with the issues that aren’t presented in political terms. Seven such issues – legal abortion, the death penalty, concern about global warming, legalisation of marijuana, same-sex marriage, assessment of race relations and approval of trade unions – have all moved in a consistently progressive direction over the eight-year period.

Some of the changes are very substantial. Support for marriage equality has risen from about 40% to above 60%; support for marijuana legalisation has gone from the high 30s to the high 50s. Opposition to the death penalty, which has long lagged behind other liberal causes, has gone from below 30% to above 40%.

Nothing at all has moved so clearly in the other direction. Perhaps the closest is the belief that “Obama should close Guantanamo Bay”, which fell from above 40% to around 30% before recovering most of that ground. (It may be that mention of Obama in the question led to a better match with his approval rating.) Two questions on gun control showed almost no change, while concern about civil liberties in the context of anti-terrorism policies rose mid-term before falling back to close to its starting point.

And the most broadly philosophical question, as to whether one would prefer a larger government providing more services to a smaller government providing fewer services, produces a flat trend line around the 40% mark.

So there is no evidence that the election of Donald Trump reflects some pronounced swing to the right in Americans’ values or beliefs. On the contrary, the evidence, such as it is, suggests the opposite. The angry white men who make up Trump’s main support base do not amount to a majority – indeed, that fact is one of the very things they are angry about.

Trumpism, like many other far-right movements in history, is a defensive reaction, of people who see the tide of history turning away from them. The description “populism” is misleading if it leads us to see it as the voice of the majority; Hillary Clinton won the popular vote convincingly, and may well have won by more if Americans voted in proportion to their race and age demographics.

That’s no cause for blind optimism. Rearguards sometimes win battles, and historical tides sometimes go into reverse (as several of these same indicators did in the 1970s and 1980s). And Trump really is president. But some longer term confidence is not without foundation.

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