Of all the critiques of western monotheism, perhaps the most troublesome is the theodicy, also known as the Problem of Evil. It’s a three-part syllogism that contains its own inescapable contradiction: if God is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good, then evil should not exist. Because evil exists, at least one of the postulates must be wrong or at least weakened in some way (e.g., the necessity of free will limits God’s absolute power, etc.)
Donald Trump’s abysmally low polling combined with his appalling and open racism provides an opportunity for a similar impossible quandary. Call it the Trumpodicy, if you will. The three postulates are as follows:
1. Trump won the election with nearly 50% of the vote solely due to racism and bigotry, not other factors.
2. Trump has abandoned all other forms of populism except for racism and bigotry.
3. Trump has slid from nearly 50% approval down to under 35% since the election.
All of those statements cannot simultaneously be true, and align with current realities. At least one of them has to be wrong.
We know that the third statement is undeniably true. Donald Trump’s approval rating has fallen to 35% in a recent Marist poll, and Gallup’s trendline has him at an even more abysmal 34%. His favorability ratings aren’t any better. No other president in the history of modern polling has fallen so far, so quickly.
Now, a scientist worth the title might object that there are other variables to consider that might explain the decline apart from Trump’s bigoted and cantankerous persona. But the problem for Trump is that all other fundamental factors should be working in his favor. The economy continues on an upward climb per most traditional indicators. There have been no major national disasters or failed military operations, such as bedeviled George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. Trump hasn’t passed or even threatened to pursue legislation with a significant backlash, such as when Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act or when George W. Bush threatened to privatize social security. The fight over repealing Obamacare was mostly partisanized already, and was seen as a primarily Congressional drama from which Trump was a distant observer.
The Russia investigation is the one exception to all of this, but so far nothing in it has directly implicated Trump personally yet. Many of these allegations were already present during the campaign, but did not prevent Trump from winning the election. Further, we have seen in the past that investigations of this nature tend to polarize the electorate. Russia alone cannot account for a 16% decline in under a year.
We also know that the second part of the syllogism is undeniably accurate. Candidate Trump promised many populist things during his campaign for the White House—many of them well to the left of Republican Party orthodoxy. He promised to bring back factories, infrastructure and American jobs against the bipartisan free trade consensus. He promised to deliver better healthcare at lower cost for all Americans. He promised not to touch Medicare or Medicaid. He promised to drain the swamp, to hold Wall Street and hedge fund managers accountable, and to make the economy work for regular Americans again.
President Trump has abandoned all of those promises. Especially with the departure of Steve Bannon who spearheaded many of those campaign pledges, that sort of populism was barely even attempted by the Trump Administration. Trump endorsed the traditionally savage Republican healthcare plans of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, bills that contradicted all of his commitments and that he himself called “mean.” Trump’s ballyhooed promises to bring back factory jobs have fallen far short of expectations. Wall Street hasn’t even been touched, even as the Trump Administration gives away the store to big business at every opportunity.
The only thing left of Trump’s campaign-era populism is the racism and xenophobia. The things the Trump Administration has done without Congress have been mean-spirited attempts to Make America White Again: ill-considered travel bans from specific Muslim countries, vicious and arbitrary deportations by ICE, attempts to limit legal immigration to the United States, obvious moves to suppress minority votes in the name of controlling “voter fraud,” and now even open defense of neo-nazi rallygoers as “very fine people.”
Which brings us back to postulate #1: the notion that Trump won the election purely on racial resentments alone. Legions of pixels have been spilled in litigating the question historically and numerically. But in the end, simple deductive logic says it can’t be true.
If Trump’s approval has declined precipitously (which it certainly has), then a large number of Trump supporters must not have been getting what they thought they voted for. If Trump has doubled down on the racism and xenophobia at the expense of other priorities since the election (which he has), then those voters who have fallen off the wagon must be upset that he’s not delivering on other matters they care about. Julius Krein’s much-read mea culpa for his past Trump support, and his prior willingness to condone the president’s brutal bigotries in order to achieve other priorities of import, are instructive here. Trump is either misunderstanding what actually got him elected by assuming that all his voters are like the deplorables who go to his rallies, or he simply can’t help himself.
Either way, the logic speaks for itself.
That’s good news for Democrats and for the nation as a whole. For Democrats, it means there is a path forward to reach Trump’s disaffected voters on their larger priorities without sacrificing commitments to civil rights. For the nation, it means that the American people who twice elected Barack Obama did not reverse course on basic decency as badly as one might have feared, and that even now there is hope for redemption.