Suppose they gave a landslide and no one came? Part 1 of this post covered one reason why Trump supporters’ efforts to convince us that he actually won the popular vote (if only you exclude a few states) are more concerning than they might appear at first glance. But there’s also a second reason I think we need to pay attention to what Trump supporters are doing when they push this idea: they’re not not just trolling, it’s a genuine attempt by Trump and his people to give the impression that he won an overwhelming victory. They then use that impression to claim widespread support for their unpopular actions.
They actually seem to think if they repeat the idea often enough, they will get people to believe it. In conjunction with this effort, we’ve seen Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and others come right out and claim that Trump won the election in a landslide victory, when in fact, even his electoral college win was one of the smallest in history (it ranks 46th out of 58 on the list). Mike Pence called Trump’s win historic and compared him to Ronald Reagan, who is the only President to win more than 90% of the electoral college twice. And just this past Sunday, both Reince Preibus and Mike Pence were back at it, making the Sunday show rounds, touting Trump’s “landslide” win.
What’s Your Agenda?
And the reason for this marketing of Trump’s “landslide win” is not simply because Donald Trump likes to think of himself as the winningest President who ever Presidented. It’s being done for more sinister reasons. The first of those reasons is to allow Trump & the people around to claim he has a mandate to enact their radical agenda. Okay, I’ll be real here: Trump himself probably is just motivated by soothing his fragile ego.
But most of the people around Trump, including most of the Republican Congress, have been in politics for a long time, so they care about playing the game. And yeah, realistically, they would likely just go for it anyway, mandate or not, since they have been waiting years to enact this wish list of items. But they would feel a whole lot better about doing it if they can claim that the American people are with them. They know that when you want to enact sweeping changes, things go a whole lot smoother (and your next election a whole lot better!) if you have a mandate behind you.
So was I just being Chicken Little when I said “radical agenda” in the previous paragraph? Well, what Trump and the Republicans have planned is among the most – if not the most – far-reaching collection of legislation we’ll have experienced in our lifetimes. Here are just some of the items Trump and/or Republicans have on their “to do” list for Trump’s term: abolish Medicare, cut social security, repeal Obamacare with no blueprint on how to replace the lost insurance plans for approx. 30 million people, cut Medicaid, defund Planned Parenthood, privatize the VA, enact major tax cuts for corporations & individuals that especially benefit the wealthiest & add trillions to the deficit (the biggest tax reform since Reagan), move education away from public schools using charters & vouchers, end the Iran nuclear pact , pull out of the Paris Climate agreement, build the Keystone XL pipeline & others like it, cancel the EPA’s clean power plan & significantly curtail the powers of the EPA in general while cutting its funding. And then of course there are Trump’s plans to build the wall with Mexico , start a Muslim ban/registry & impose huge tariffs on imports.*
Out of all of these policy changes, the only ones Trump actually ran on were the latter three, plus repealing Obamacare, which was always accompanied by Trump’s promise to replace it with something “terrific”, less expensive & much better – not exactly what the GOP currently has planned. Trump actually specifically ran against some of these policies, such as the cuts to Social Security and changes to Medicare and defunding Planned Parenthood.
Therefore, it would be tough to claim a mandate for the above listed agenda even if Trump had won in a landslide. But given the conditions of Trump’s win, such a claim gets even harder to make. That’s why those who support Trump and those around him have moved so quickly, beginning just days after the election, to try to sell the narrative that Trump had a landslide win. And part of that sell is to claim he really won the popular vote.
Well, Excuuuuuse Me
A second reason Trump and his people need to convince the country that he won in a landslide is that they’re using it to try to justify his constant breaking of precedents and norms that they know there is no legitimate excuse for. This includes things such as: (1) refusing to release his tax returns (relevant again in light of the new questions about his potential connections to Russia); (2) refusing to divest from his businesses (not only is this a huge break from precedent as every President before him has either put their assets in a blind trust or conflict free treasury notes & index funds, but it’s particularly galling since he has by far the most complex and opaque financial portfolio of any modern President); (3) displaying a hostile and combative attitude toward the press (which includes threatening to cut off access, refusing to allow the typical press pool, labeling any criticism of him “fake news” etc); and (4) using Twitter in an appallingly irresponsible and unnerving manner (including bullying critics into silence, harshly criticizing our own intelligence agencies & getting into personal battles with fellow lawmakers, making foreign policy pronouncements that rattle & alienate our allies, making domestic policy critiques that move markets, etc).
When reporters try to question Trump or his representatives about these things, a common response is something along the lines of “the people knew this is what they were getting when they voted for him. They obviously didn’t have a problem with it. You reporters are the only ones who care about this.”
This is a transparent attempt to intimidate the press out of asking Trump questions he doesn’t want to answer. (And when viewed in the context of Part 1 of this post, you can see how it’s a bid to shame reporters with the implication that they don’t understand the concerns of “real” America). It’s all part of Trump’s larger desperate effort to avoid any calls for accountability. The catch is that this argument isn’t very convincing in a world where Trump didn’t actually win a majority of the people’s votes. In that light, the attempt to convince us that Trump actually won the popular vote – and that he won the whole thing in a landslide – makes a lot of sense.**
* Not to mention that the types of Supreme Court justices Trump has promised to appoint would likely be hostile to protections for minorities, women’s rights, gay rights, worker’s rights, civil rights and voting rights.
**For now at least, we can take heart in the fact that recent polls show these arguments in defense of Trump’s actions aren’t working, at least not outside of his small base of very dedicated supporters. Trump seems to have only grown less popular since Election Day, and the public is clearly not happy with how he’s handling the transition period. This is highly unusual as Presidents typically enjoy a honeymoon period for at least several months post-election.
A recent Quinnipiac poll (released Jan 10) showed Trump with a favorable rating of only 37%, down from 44% in late November. And a recent Gallup poll (Jan 13) found that only 44% approve of how Trump has handled the Presidential transition versus 51% who disapprove. This is down from an even split of 48-48 in mid December. That Gallup poll may not seem terrible, but at this time in 2009, 83% said they approved of how Obama was handling the transition. The comparable number for George W. Bush was 61% approve and for Bill Clinton was 68%.
And a new ABC News/Washington Post poll (Jan 16), which like the others shows Trump with poor overall approval numbers, also shows that while Trump breaks even on the broad question of whether he’s complying with ethics laws, he fares terribly on the question of his tax returns, with 74% saying he should release them, including even 49% of his own supporters. And finally, a new CNN poll (Jan 17) has his approval at 40% versus 52% disapproval, down from 46-45 in mid-November. However, don’t expect any of this to cause Trump to suddenly change his ways. Expect him and his people to only dig in further in their attempts to convince us all how popular he is.