WASHINGTON – Political commentators are supposed to be somewhat objective and analytical when it comes to tracking trends. In that spirit, I find the polling snapshot of President Donald Trump at one year since his election to be interesting – if “interesting” is defined as a downward spiral of polarization, pettiness and prejudice that threatens the daily functioning and moral standing of the American republic.
Our times are not normal – and it is a disservice to the country to normalize them. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, Trump’s approval rating is worse – far worse – than any president at this stage in seven decades of polling. About half of those surveyed strongly disapprove. The public assessment of Trump’s leadership, character and competence has grown harsher in every category.
All this is true following two quarters of more than 3 percent economic growth, with the stock market booming and unemployment at 4.1 percent. Practically, this means that Trump has no cushion or margin of public support when economic circumstances worsen. At a time of (relative) peace and prosperity, Trump is still broadly viewed as divisive and ineffective. The ship of Trump has strong winds at its back – but is sinking too fast to take advantage of them.
And yet. The Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that if the Trump/Clinton presidential race were re-held today, it would be a tie. Think on that. Arguably the worst president in modern history might still beat one of the most prominent Democrats in America. This indicates a Democratic Party in the midst of its own profound crisis. During the Obama years, it collapsed in large portions of the country. Its national establishment has been revealed – with extensive footnotes provided by Donna Brazile – as arrogant, complacent and corrupt. But the only serious ideological alternative to that establishment is frankly socialist – the fatuous and shallow sort of socialism held by college freshmen and Bernie Sanders.
We have reached a moment of intellectual and moral exhaustion for both major political parties. One is dominated by ethnic politics – which a disturbingly strong majority of Republican regulars have found appealing or acceptable. The other is dominated by identity politics – a movement that counts a growing number of Robespierres. Both seem united only in their resentment of the international economic order that America has built and led for 70 years.
Normally, a political party would succeed by taking the best of populist passion and giving it more mainstream expression. But in this particular, polarized environment, how is that possible? Do mainstream Republicans take a dollop of nativism and a dash of racism and add them to their tax cuts? That seemed to be the approach that Ed Gillespie took in the Virginia governor’s race. But this is morally poisonous – like taking a little ricin in your tea. Do mainstream Democrats just take some angry identity politics and a serving of socialism – some extreme pro-choice rhetoric and single payer health care – and add them to job training programs?
The lead ideology of the Republican Party at the national level is now immoral and must be overturned – a task that only a smattering of retiring officeholders has undertaken. The lead ideology of the Democratic Party is likely to be overturned – by radicals with little to offer the country save anger and bad economics.
Where does this leave us at year one of the Trump era? With two very sick political parties that have a monopoly on political power and little prospect for reform and recovery. The stakes are quite high. If America really develops a political competition between ethno-nationalism and identity socialism, it will mean we are a nation in decline – likely to leave pressing problems (educational failure, unconstrained debt, a flawed criminal justice system) unconfronted. Likely to forfeit global leadership, undermine world markets and cede to others the mantle of stability and firm purpose.
There is a serious prospect that the president will truly crash and burn in a colossal fiasco so disastrous as to be undeniable proof against all things Trump. But that would be so bad for the country that it is hard to wish for.
So what should we wish for? It is a measure of our moment that this is not obvious. It is quite possible that moderate conservatism and moderate liberalism are inadequate to explain and tame the convulsive economic and social changes of our time. Which places America’s future – uncertain, maybe unknowable – on the other side of an earthquake.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.