According to a new Pew Research Center survey, America has “never been more divided” along partisan lines over issues such as immigration and the border wall. Color me “not surprised.”
The partisan divide is also quite pronounced in President Trump’s approval ratings. According to Pew, the partisan gap in Trump’s approval ratings “is wider than for any president in more than six decades.”
Trump’s overall job approval stands at 37%, which is little changed from measures over the past year. Trump’s support among Republicans and Republican leaners remains high (80% approve), while nearly all Democrats and Democratic leaners (96%) disapprove of his job performance.
I’m sure the kneejerk reaction by some will be to assume this is a reflection on Trump — and a bad reflection at that. Trump, they say, is a racist who hates black people, brown people, gay people, little green men, and basically any group Democrats want to showcase as the next victims du jour.
Heck, it would be nice to believe that the partisan divide in Trump’s approval ratings is a new phenomenon, something unique to Trump that other “establishment” politicians have managed to rise above. Maybe once Trump is out of office and we have a president who doesn’t regularly rant on Twitter, things will go back to normal, and the partisan divide in presidential approval will return to a historical norm.
Yeah, that just isn’t going to happen.
See, the previous president with the highest partisan divide in approval ratings was Barack Obama. Before him, it was George W. Bush. Before him, Bill Clinton. Before him, it was George H.W. Bush. Do you see the pattern here? The partisan divide in presidential approval ratings has gone up consistently since the 1990s. Trump isn’t the problem; his approval ratings are just a symptom of an increasingly pronounced partisan electorate, who base their approval largely on on party identification, not actual job performance.
If job performance was the sole factor in approval ratings, it would be easy to surmise that Trump would be enjoying higher-than-average approval. The economy is strong, gas prices are fairly low, wages are improving… things are, on balance, pretty darn good. Compare that to the Obama years — which were plagued by a weak economy, high gas prices, and stagnant wages — and there’s no contest.
The partisan gap is no surprise. The next president, Republican or Democrat, will likely have an even wider partisan gap in his or her approval rating than Trump. As I’ve previously written, Trump haters (who already believe Trump to be Hitler) have been laying the groundwork for, in the event their fantasy of Trump’s resignation or ouster from the Oval Office comes true, Vice President Pence being “even worse” than Trump. Every Republican president or presidential nominee has been the new Hitler incarnate, and that’s not about to stop after Trump.
The bottom line here is that presidential approval ratings are becoming an increasingly useless measure of job performance. George W. Bush is a great example of a president who left office with a historically low approval rating but saw his public image recover in the most epic fashion. His father — whose membership in the club of one-term presidents should leave him predestined for mediocrity in the history books — is bound to see his efforts in ending the Cold War and with German reunification reflect well on his legacy. Bill Clinton, in contrast, saw his public image take a hit in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Despite the increasingly partisan nature of approval ratings, the last three presidents have won reelection when they faced the voters a second time.
So, as far as I’m concerned, presidential approval ratings aren’t all that important. But the partisan divide is. This partisan divide is why both sides of the shutdown debate have no interest in compromising and why we cheer rule changes to make it easier for our party to govern when it has the majority and poo-poo changes when they’re not. This is why leftist governors and other local officials feel emboldened to violate federal law in order to oppose Trump’s agenda. If we are going to be blinded by partisanship, we will slowly but surely cease to be a nation of laws, and deteriorate into a country where lawlessness is in the eye of the beholder — where the criminalizing of political preferences will become commonplace.
Does that sound like America to you?
Matt Margolis is the author of The Scandalous Presidency of Barack Obama and the bestselling The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama. His new book, Trumping Obama: How President Trump Saved Us From Barack Obama’s Legacy, will be published in 2019. You can follow Matt on Twitter @MattMargolis