Posts tagged: Trump

Why Won’t Trump’s Approval Ratings Change?

Wars are known to create a rally around the flag effect, where presidential approval skyrockets, as does trust in government. This was true for George H. W. Bush, and for George W. Bush after 9-11, so in political conditions not wholly unlike ours.

So far, Trump’s approval rating seems locked in, though we saw a bit of an uptick yesterday. Regardless, few people approve of him more or less than they did before the virus shut everything down. It seems like our political tribalization is preventing any movement in approval ratings. Remarkably, we were fairly polarized in 2001, but W still got a huge effect, and now Trump gets next to nothing.

So what’s going on? Why did 9-11 help W but the new coronavirus hasn’t helped Trump much?

Here’s my best guess. In the case of 9-11, everyone came to have the same beliefs about it pretty quickly (and this months before 9-11 was falsely tied to Iraq). The human death toll was immediate and visible, and the culprits were visible in many ways as well. Moreover, it was expected that there would be a military response, and so people geared up to support the troops and whomever was going to lead them.

Things are different with the virus. First, beliefs about the virus remain somewhat polarized. Second, the human death toll is not immediate and is far less visible, and cannot easily be tied to a human culprit. Moreover, while we all have to change our behavior to beat the virus, we aren’t going to war. People aren’t going to get shot and killed fighting against an enemy so the bonding effect is smaller.

And yet, you would still expect something of a rally, right? What else is going on? Trump was already quite unpopular, far moreso than W, and people’s beliefs about him are extremely polarized, more than they were about W, even following the 2000 election. Further, Trump has had an inconsistent response to the virus, which I think has dampened the rallying effect as well. But if his behavior is more consistently seen as positive, then we should expect a modest rallying effect. I can imagine his approval rating getting up to 60% or s0, though that would surprise me somewhat. But it could go above 50% for a few weeks. It might be enough to win the election depending on how things go, but right now both Trump and Biden are below 50%!

“The Chinese Virus”

I posted this on Facebook the other day, but I thought I’d share it on the blog. I thought it might be worth offering some thoughts about why Trump and now many conservatives are calling the new coronavirus the “Chinese” virus. In my view, it is not *because* of racism, even if the term has racist consequences by leading Americans to, say, harass Chinese Americans. And the term wasn’t picked because it is “accurate” because Trump could have picked a bunch of other accurate names, like the CCP virus.

Here are a few possible reasons, some of which have occurred to Trump, but all of which have likely occurred to his elite supporters:

1. One of Trump’s longtime fears is China’s growing economic power. He’s been talking about this for decades. I think Trump and elite Trumpers want us to commercially decouple from China because he thinks it is bad for the US. By blaming China for the virus, he makes decoupling more politically viable. It was unthinkable a month ago. Now things are different. Fox is talking about being all pharma production back to the US. And some on the left seem sympathetic.

2. Trump and elite Trumpers wants to isolate China politically and weaken Xi because they think China isn’t a mere economic threat, but a political one too. If the world blames China for the virus, and indeed there are some grounds to blame the Chinese government, then that could weaken them greatly.

3. Trump and elite Trumpers recognize that Trump can win re-election if there’s a rally around the flag effect over the virus. If he can get the country to blame China rather than him, or to blame a visible foe rather than just an invisible virus, he may make the rally around the flag effect more likely. It might work too. If some of the blue tribe can be convinced that China is a bigger threat right now than the red tribe, they might be willing to vote for Trump.

Along these lines, I expect Trump is going to go after Biden hard for purportedly pro-China trade policy under Obama. Biden wants to remind us of Obama-era normalcy to boot Trump, but now Trump’s most potent line of attack is that Biden and Obama made us more dependent on China than we should have been. I’m not saying I agree with that, but I can imagine it being an effective line.

I want countries to be economically interdependent because I think it promotes peace and prosperity. But I sort of get not wanting the Chinese Communist Party, one of the most evil organizations in the world, to be able to deny us all our pharmaceuticals if they decide they want to. I don’t think they’d do it, but they’re engaged in mass murder and concentration camps right now, so maybe we should mistrust them.

Mitt Romney Mixed Faith and Politics. Good for Him.

In a remarkable interview, Mitt Romney explains his reasons for voting to convict Trump, probably to his grave political detriment. I can’t see any advantage to his vote, so I believe what he says about his reasoning.

What I find especially fascinating about Romney’s decision is how he came to it. First, Romney tried to make sure he was weighing the evidence properly through constant prayer. He used an expressly religious practice in order to ensure he was more rational. Through prayer, Romney was able to debias, depolarize, and detribalize. And he had the humility to claim that he did not believe he knew God’s mind.

Interestingly, Romney did not vote for especially religious reasons. He voted based on what he regarded as the evidence. But he had religious reasons to take his vow to God seriously. And he had religious reasons to believe in providence: that in the end, if you do what is right, God will ensure that it works to the good. He trusted God that things would work out in the end. So Romney used religious reasons to drive him to make a more virtuous decision.

The typical secular progressive attitude towards religious motives in politics is one of reservation. That is partly because religious reasoning is often oversimplified to the case of voting for a policy because that’s what the Bible (supposedly) says. But note the complexity of Romney’s deliberations, how religious and secular considerations are interwoven and how they strengthen one another. This suggests that religious reasoning in political matters can be quite cognitively and emotionally subtle, and attempts to drive this kind of reasoning out of politics may come with real costs.

The big cost is that religious commitment can serve as a cross-cutting commitment that can be used to reduce political polarization. If people have sincere faith, then that may make them less likely to follow what is politically fashionable and pay more attention to the moral truth.

So sometimes allowing religion in politics is a good thing. And this is one case.

UPDATE: Amazingly, Trump said, “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.” That’s a progressive refrain.

Put Not Your Trust in Princes: On Trump, Impeachment, and Evangelical Christianity

On Thursday, Christianity Today, the flagship newspaper of reflective evangelical Christianity, endorsed the removal of Donald Trump. Today Trump fired back, and his power-worshipping servant, Franklin Graham, put great distance between his family (who helped found CT) and CT’s current leadership. Here is the most powerful passage:

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?

It is extremely important for theologically conservative Christians to avoid identifying their faith with right-wing political causes, even important ones. Franklin Graham seems incapable of criticizing anything the president does. He clearly treats Trump and his regime as a kind of idol. As have a number of other leading evangelicals.

Most of my readers are non-Christians who identify as either progressive or libertarian, so it may be obvious to you that CT has taken a morally respectable stance and that Graham and most evangelicals do not. But I think things are a bit more complicated than this. Many evangelicals think, with good reason, that the progressive left hates them and wants to stigmatize them for their traditional views on sexual morality. Many feel that, however bad Trump is, the Democrats are worse. Trump is a terrible person and a bad president, but he doesn’t hate evangelicals, and he is providing them with the judicial appointments of their dreams. So rejecting Trump might seem unsafe and unwise.

To these people, the CT article is not going to be very convincing. CT focuses on problems with Trump, and judging the wisdom of removal requires comparing Trump’s policies with those of the alternatives (though more on this below). But while the article may not have made the best comparative case for removal, it does something more important.

Much evangelical support for Trump is not based on careful political calculus, but has instead led evangelical Christians to effectively convert from traditional Christianity to the worship of the American red tribe’s false god of political power. If you spend more time watching Fox News defend Trump than attending church, you might be worshipping someone other than Jesus. Here’s a sad example from a CT reader that Ted Olsen, the Editorial Director at CT, received by email:

This is the real danger of supporting Trump no matter what he does. By refusing to criticize Trump, and by refusing to consider removing him, Christians can be tempted to treat Trump as an idol. Careful political calculus might lead Christians to oppose removal, but outright and unwavering support is spiritually dangerous. Christians are taught to believe that we are not to put our trust in princes, in sons of men in whom there is no salvation (Psalm 146:3). And that’s because human beings have a natural tendency to worship things other than God. This is why all Trump-supporting Christians should seriously consider supporting removal: to ensure that their support for Trump does not compete with their devotion to God.

And the consequences of removal aren’t exactly disastrous! Pence will be president, and would arguably stand a good chance against whomever the Democrats put forward. Indeed, Pence would have less support from Trump’s base. But he’d have less opposition from independents and Democrats. So removing Trump is not tantamount to electing a Democratic president. And the long-term effects of removal would discourage future presidents from acting this badly, such that a future conservative president might be better behaved.

So here’s the general lesson. American Christians in particular must struggle to formulate complex and reflective political attitudes in a polarized culture that tells us that political tribe affiliation is what matters most. It is, in my view, an implication of our duty to avoid worshipping false gods.

 

Trump, Trust, and Impeachment

The greatest danger Trump poses to the country is norm erosion. All free and democratic societies depend on norms beyond the law itself in order to function well. In particular, they rely on social norms, patterns of behavior that are not only backed by empirical expectations (people think most others will follow the norm) but by normative expectations (people share a belief that we think others think we ought to follow it). So social norms are publicly recognized rules that are seen to be in effect and normatively binding. Social norms are one of the key sources of social order. In many cases, if laws contradict social norms, they will simply be ineffective.

Democracy depends on political officials following social norms like, well, don’t use your office for personal gain. These are acts that researchers call “grand corruption,” and they are probably the greatest threat to trust in government. What’s worse, corruption is one of the few factors that clearly negatively impact social trust, a precious resources that makes just about every institution work well. When an elected official, usually a very high status person, violates an anti-corruption social norm, they therefore not only facilitate the harm the social norm discourages, they undermine the basis for social cooperation itself.

Ordinarily, social norms are enforced through sanctions – blame and punishment – where violators are held accountable by members of their community, and most importantly by high status members. The hope is that the sanction, or the prospect of sanction, motivates compliance with the norm, and some kind of repentance by the norm violator. The primary aim is to impose costs on the violator, which will include the moral emotions of guilt and shame, and drive compliance. If the violator can’t be successfully punished, the aim is to discourage others from violating the norm in the future.

Impeachment might not cost Trump, who I think welcomes it, but it can impose costs on future violators, since most officials have a capacity for guilt and shame and don’t want to be remembered for being impeached. So I think it makes sense to move forward. However, I also worry that Trump may benefit from the impeachment process, especially because failing to remove him can be spun as exoneration, and Trump can easily control the media narrative throughout the trial. If he benefits from this sanction by creating a counter-sanction, that may embolden not only him, but future officials.

For this reason, it is essential that Trump be successfully sanctioned. But successfully sanctioning someone who feels no guilt or shame, and who is a master media manipulator, is hard. It will require skillful political maneuvering. If it succeeds, we may preserve the precious resources of social and political trust. If it fails, God help us all.