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The Wages Of Sin Is Death

Trump’s unpopularity did not stop him from being elected, and it won’t stop him from enacting his agenda

There are two sorts of media angles that have become popular and prevalent in the post-election run-up to the presidential inauguration. Both are about why people voted for Trump, but they get at the question differently. The first angle is the Voice of Trump Country, in which the author goes to wherever rock-ribbed, salt-of-the-earth, working-class white people live and asks what motivated their Trump vote. These articles usually take a sympathetic view of these voters, in that their concerns are generally presented as “legitimate” (opioid epidemic, deindustrialization) rather than “illegitimate” (xenophobia, racism). The second kind of piece, which has gained popularity as we’ve moved from the campaign postmortem phase to the presidential transition phase, we can call the Buyer’s Remorse piece. These are sometimes first-person testimonials, or based on screenshots from Facebook and Twitter. Buyer’s Remorse pieces are about people who voted for Trump without realizing that some of the policy proposals he ran on would actually hurt them. The prototypical example is a Trump voter who realizes after the election that they are actually on Obamacare. These voters are, naturally, less sympathetic.

Both types of articles are popular because they make Democrats feel slightly better about Trump’s impending presidency. Part of it is simple “I told you so and you didn’t listen” and “the people who don’t agree with me are stupid” schadenfreude. The other reason is a bit subtler: the idea that some significant portion of Trump voters didn’t really know what they were voting for, or didn’t completely think through the consequences of their vote (a similar idea was popular post-Brexit). This is reassuring to liberals for two reasons: It allows Democrats to maintain the illusion that those who voted against them hold the same values as they do but are pawns or suckers — if they just understood what they were doing, they would have voted otherwise. It also gives them hope that Trump will self-destruct as Americans realize who they’ve elected.

There’s no ‘mandate clause’ in the Constitution. All that matters is if Trump has the votes in Congress.

I’m sure there were some low-information voters, as there are in every election. But there’s no real evidence that a wave of the freshly informed is cresting or even swelling. Trump will have the lowest favorability ratings any president has ever had at inauguration. But he hasn’t actually become more unpopular after his election; most presidents get a honeymoon bump post-election, and Trump is no exception. He polled in the low thirties throughout the presidential campaign, and jumped up to 42 percent following the election, where he’s remained throughout the transition. If there is widespread buyer’s remorse already, it’s not visible in the polls. Obamacare hasn’t rapidly become popular as people realize they’re on it, either. The percentage of people who like the Affordable Care Act has been flat for more than a year, and there hasn’t been a spike post-election. Forty-seven percent of people want Obamacare to stay, and 49 percent want it repealed. About half of the people who want it repealed would like a replacement ready ahead of time, while the other half want Obamacare gone ASAP whether a replacement has been prepared or not.

This is important because we need to recognize that most Trump voters wanted to vote for Trump — which means that they wanted what Trump ran on. They aren’t “confused Democrats who wound up voting for Trump out of some giant misunderstanding.” It’s true that voting is a noisy signal of beliefs; it’s not as if voters give an explanation for their vote on the ballot. This makes it useful to make an honest attempt to figure out what voters intended by electing Trump. And this is why pundits, professional and amateur, like to discuss a president’s mandate. The idea is to determine to what extent the results of the election give the president and his party a green light to pass their agenda. Trump, who didn’t receive the most votes and is very unpopular, is said to have a “weak mandate” — if he has one at all. But there’s no “mandate clause” in the Constitution. All that matters is if Trump has the votes in Congress.

Democrats are going to have to sink his policy proposals; his agenda isn’t simply going to founder on the shoals of public opinion. “Trump has no mandate” is a useless phrase unless his foes are saying it to their senators and representatives. The Trump Voter Who Is Feeling Buyer’s Remorse, if that’s a demographic that actually exists in any significant number, should be seen as a political opportunity — these people may be convinced to organize against Trump. The fact that Trump is not popular did not prevent him from being elected, and by itself, it will not prevent him from passing his agenda. He, and the politicians and public that line up with him, will have to be defeated.