Donald Trump, majoritarian?

He didn't win even a plurality in the last election, and his approval rating's never broken 50 percent.

“SILENT MAJORITY!” President Donald Trump tweeted today, invoking the rhetoric Richard Nixon used in 1969 to defend a war Trump chose not to fight. Nixon was correct that the public at the time supported his conduct of the Vietnam War, which would drag on three years more. But if there’s one word Trump should stay away from, it’s “majority.”

Start with the fact that Trump, far from winning a majority of the popular vote in 2016, didn’t even win a plurality. Hillary Clinton won that, 48.2 percent to 46.1 percent. No losing presidential candidate has ever won more votes than she did (though Samuel Tilden in 1876 and Andrew Jackson in 1824 bested her percentagewise in losing to Rutherford B. Hayes and John Quincy Adams).

Trump has also never scored an approval rating as high as 50 percent, much less the 50-plus percent needed to claim majority support. That distinguishes Trump from his 12 predecessors, going all the way back to Harry Truman.

Trump can’t even claim that a majority of Americans consistently opposed his impeachment. More people supported rather than opposed the House inquiry, and a CNN poll in mid-January recorded a 51 percent majority favoring his removal from office. (Most other polls showed support for Trump’s removal hovering just below 50 percent.)

Nor has Trump ever governed like a president who aspired to win majority support. As Philip Bump noted bluntly in yesterday’s Washington Post, “He has no experience in attempting to appeal to audiences other than his core base of political support. He has never demonstrated any interest in doing so.” It worked in 2016, sort of, and he’s counting on its working again in 2020.

The relationship between Republicans and majoritarian politics has changed a lot since 1969. For about two decades after Nixon’s speech, the party claimed to represent the views of a majority of Americans. That’s why Jerry Falwell called the organization he created in 1979 the Moral Majority. By 1989, though, the Christian right was shrinking and Falwell folded the group. Movement conservatives were beginning to doubt whether elective politics was worth the trouble, given the concessions necessary to accommodate majority views that they judged immoral. New Right leader Howard Phillips, distressed by President Ronald Reagan’s overtures to Mikhail Gorbachev, denounced Reagan in 1988 as a “useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.”

Conservative rhetoric, meanwhile, shifted from the claim that most Americans supported conservative politics to generalized condemnation of America’s moral climate. One heard less talk about “most Americans” and more talk about “real Americans,” defined as those who lived in the least populous states. The real America was to be found in the places where the fewest Americans dwelt.

Through the 1980s, social conservatives condemned homosexuality and abortion as wrong, a normative judgment backed by confidence (however misplaced) that most Americans agreed. But sometime in the 1990s conservatives started backing away from appeals based on shared values and, mimicking liberals, couched their arguments in the language of pluralism. Was homosexuality an abomination? Who could say? But a baker who refused to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple, conservatives argued, possessed that right on religious grounds. To rule such anti-LGBT discrimination illegal would itself constitute … anti-religious discrimination! In effect, conservatives were returning American pluralism to its dubious roots in reactionary politics, i.e., the South’s antebellum defense of slavery. (For more on that, I recommend Philip Longman’s June 1983 Washington Monthly essay “From Calhoun To Sister Boom-Boom: The Legacy of Interest Group Politics.” See also Peter Drucker’s 1948 essay, “A Key To American Politics: Calhoun’s Pluralism.”)

The final stage of the GOP’s shift away from majoritarian politics was its ham-handed attempts to limit the franchise. The Bush administration tried hard to find widespread voter fraud in order to justify the imposition of Voter ID laws and other obstacles. It came up empty. The Trump administration has tried and failed, too. Every now and then some idiot Republican state legislator or minor party functionary blurts out that the real reason to impose Voter ID or to oppose vote by mail is to prevent Democrats from voting. In April Trump did the same on Twitter (“doesn’t work out well for Republicans”). He then adjusted his rhetoric to clarify that his concern was not partisan, but rather the integrity of the ballot. Vote by mail encouraged fraud, he tweeted, only to have Twitter label his tweet to that effect false and misleading.

This is one instance in which Trump can’t be criticized for being out of step with mainstream Republican thinking. A 2018 Pew poll found that while 67 percent of all Americans agreed with the statement, “Everything possible should be done to make it easy to vote,” only 48 percent of Republicans and Republican leaners agreed. Even Never-Trump conservatives have been weirdly hesitant to criticize Republicans for trying to limit the franchise (or to discuss it at all). Ironically, though, some Republicans worry Trump’s opposition to vote by mail, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, may this year hurt Republican candidates.

Trump’s anti-majoritarianism is ultimately a reaction against the growing demographic significance of minority populations. The U.S. is projected to become “majority-minority” sometime in the next 30 years, and nobody thinks that will be good news for Republicans. It’s been a long time since any subgroup in America, much less Trump’s political base, could be called “silent.” Any claim that Trump’s supporters constitute a “silent majority” has been, at least until now, entirely unsupported by available evidence.

Even Trump supporters understand this. This is, after all, a movement that was born questioning the legitimacy of an African American president. Trump’s base understands all too well its own demise. If it knew itself to be in the majority, it wouldn’t feel aggrieved. And if it didn’t feel aggrieved, would it even exist?