No matter what he does, history says Trump will never be popular
President Trump seems to live atop his own petard. Every time it seems like he should have an advantage, he squanders it by torpedoing a legislative package, firing a government official, making absurd utterances to foreign leaders or ranting on Twitter, often against the better judgment of many who work for him. No wonder that, since Inauguration Day, his approval rating has never risen higher than the 46 percent of the vote he won last November; a Washington Post-ABC News poll out last weekend showed it at 36 percent.
But these unforced errors don’t quite explain his inability to take advantage of a boost in economic confidence or to expand, even slightly, the passionate base that carried him to victory. The problem lies with that very victory — the one that won him not only the presidency but also 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. The legacy of such deficits suggests there’s little he can do to gain the trust of the majority. American history is clear: Presidents who’ve lost the popular vote don’t win popular support.
The four previous presidents who finished second in votes cast all struggled to convince Americans that they were doing a good job. Each battled the perception that his victory was undemocratic and illegitimate; each soon lost the confidence of his own partisans in Congress and led an administration that historians regard as a failure. Each faced an uphill struggle to keep his base happy and mobilized while also reaching out to the majority, which preferred policies his voters detested. Most, like Trump so far, did not even try to square that circle.
Only George W. Bush seemed to escape this fate, for a time. But his temporary success had more to do with the acclaim he received after the attacks of 9/11 than anything else he accomplished in office. And this crisis-induced honeymoon didn’t last: During most of his second term, Bush’s rating stalled far below the 48 percent of the vote he had won in 2000, when half a million more Americans preferred Al Gore.
The three other presidents who lost the popular vote all lived and governed in the 19th century. None managed to overcome his initial political deficit or to enact any of the major policies he desired. In the 1824 election, John Quincy Adams drew just 31 percent of the popular vote. The conditions of that contest have never been repeated: Adams was one of four candidates, all of whom nominally belonged to the same party, the Democratic-Republicans. Because no man won an electoral-vote majority, the decision fell to the House of Representatives. Adams triumphed, largely because he agreed to appoint Henry Clay, one of his erstwhile rivals, as secretary of state. Andrew Jackson, whose popular-vote count had easily topped that of Adams, screamed that his rivals had made a “corrupt bargain”; if citizens accepted it, he charged, “they may bid farewell to their freedom.” ...