This is not what his critics expected. At 49% overall job approval in the latest Gallup poll, and with 60% approval of the way he is handling the coronavirus epidemic, President Trump’s standing with voters has improved even as the country closed down and the stock market underwent a historic meltdown. That may change as this unpredictable crisis develops, but bitter and often justified criticism of Mr. Trump’s decision making in the early months of the pandemic has so far failed to break the bond between the 45th president and his political base.
One reason Mr. Trump’s opponents have had such a hard time damaging his connection with voters is that they still don’t understand why so many Americans want a wrecking-ball presidency. Beyond attributing Mr. Trump’s support to a mix of racism, religious fundamentalism and profound ignorance, the president’s establishment opponents in both parties have yet to grasp the depth and intensity of the populist energy that animates his base and the Bernie Sanders movement.
The sheer number of voters in open political rebellion against centrist politics is remarkable. Adding the Sanders base (36% of the Democratic vote in the latest Real Clear Politics poll average, or roughly 13% of the national vote considering that about 45% of voters lean Democratic) to the core Trump base of roughly 42%, and around 55% of U.S. voters now support politicians who openly despise the central assumptions of the political establishment.
That a majority of the electorate is this deeply alienated from the establishment can’t be dismissed as bigotry and ignorance. There are solid and serious grounds for doubting the competence and wisdom of America’s self-proclaimed expert class. What is so intelligent and enlightened, populists ask, about a foreign-policy establishment that failed to perceive that U.S. trade policies were promoting the rise of a hostile Communist superpower with the ability to disrupt supplies of essential goods in a national emergency? What competence have the military and political establishments shown in almost two decades of tactical success and strategic impotence in Afghanistan? What came of that intervention in Libya? What was the net result of all the fine talk in the Bush and Obama administrations about building democracy in the Middle East?
On domestic policy, the criticism is equally trenchant and deeply felt. Many voters believe that the U.S. establishment has produced a health-care system that is neither affordable nor universal. Higher education saddles students with increasing debt while leaving many graduates woefully unprepared for good jobs in the real world. The centrist establishment has amassed unprecedented deficits without keeping roads, bridges and pipes in good repair. It has weighed down cities and states with unmanageable levels of pension debt.
The culture of social promotion and participation trophies is not, populists feel, confined to U.S. kindergartens and elementary schools. Judging by performance, they conclude that people rise in the American establishment by relentless virtue-signaling; by going along with conventional wisdom, however foolish; and by forgiving the failures of others and having their own overlooked in return.
The blame game playing out over how the president has handled the coronavirus epidemic reflects the dynamics of this struggle. Mr. Trump’s establishment critics want a narrow fight over the dismal trail of bluster, evasions, missed opportunities and failed predictions that marked the president’s approach to the virus earlier in the year. Like many criticisms of Mr. Trump, these arguments against him are by and large correct and significant and it is part of the proper job of a free press to make them.
However, Mr. Trump’s supporters are not comparing him with an omniscient leader who always does the right thing, but with the establishment—including the bulk of the mainstream media—that largely backed a policy of engagement with China long after its pitfalls became clear. For Americans who lost their jobs to Chinese competition or who fear the possibility of a new cold war against an economically potent and technologically advanced power, Mr. Trump’s errors pale before those of the bipartisan American foreign-policy consensus.
The establishment’s massive, decadeslong failure to think through the consequences of empowering Communist China and creating a trading relationship that, among other things, left the U.S. dependent on Beijing for pharmaceuticals is a much less excusable and more consequential error than anything Donald Trump has done in 2020—and it has a direct bearing on the mess we are in.
Attacks on the establishment aren’t always rational or fair. They can be one-sided and fail to do justice to the accomplishments the U.S. has made in the recent past. Populism on both the left and the right always attracts its share of snake-oil salesmen, and America’s current antiestablishment surge is no exception. But the U.S. establishment won’t prosper again until it comes to grip with a central political fact: Populism rises when establishment leadership fails. If conventional U.S. political leaders had been properly doing their jobs, Donald Trump would still be hosting a television show.
Unless the president’s opponents take the full measure of this public discontent, they will be continually surprised by his resilience against media attacks. And until the establishment undertakes a searching and honest inventory of the tangled legacy of American foreign and domestic policy since the end of the Cold War, expect populism to remain a potent part of the political scene.