Trump's Promise Advantage

Nearly all presidents promise to address key issues. The problem is, the issues Trump promised to address aren’t real.
09/18/2017 09:20 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2017
President Trump Addressing Congress
President Trump Facebook Page, Public Domain Photo
President Trump Addressing Congress

Perhaps the biggest myth in politics is that presidents don’t keep their promises. There are, of course, glaring exceptions: George W. Bush, for example, didn’t successfully privatize Social Security (although he gave it his all;) Barack Obama never managed to close down Guantanamo Bay; and Hillary Clinton implied in private that she would flip-flop on several positions if elected. But the fact of the matter is that these are exceptions, not the norm. PolitiFact’s scorecard on Obama’s promises has him keeping or compromising on close to 75 percent of his campaign promises (and nearly half were fully kept;) that’s not bad for someone who had to deal with strong opposition for six of his eight years in office. And it isn’t a trait that’s limited to Obama; very few politicians will campaign on something and then do the opposite, even if they sometimes try to work around their promises. Yet voters from all across the political spectrum never seem satisfied with their candidate’s accomplishments and lament the “broken promises” of those they elect. That’s because it isn’t the policies the candidates lied about; they either lied or were wrong about the impact those policies would have. Obama kept his promise to increase regulations on Wall Street, and anyone who had read his second book or followed his political career couldn’t have been surprised when these regulations were more Bill Clinton and less FDR. But the problem is that Obama’s regulations had no ostensible impact on the unethical practices on Wall Street, something that even he seemed to acknowledge. The failure to deliver on promised results presents a real dilemma for most elected officials.

But Trump could prove to be an exception.

Trump’s promises during the campaign were often so contrary to each other that it wasn’t uncommon for two different supporters who dreamed of two completely antithetical outcomes to think that Trump was on their side. He promised to both kick out all illegal immigrants and to offer some of them a path to citizenship; to put an end to hawkish foreign policy and “bomb the hell” out of perceived threats; to protect Americans from government subsidized healthcare and to implement a healthcare system akin to Canada’s (a single-payer system;) that Mexico would pay for the wall directly or through small payments over time; and much more. And even beyond Trump’s own contradictions, supporters would often take what he said and interpret it their own way; he always emphasized that he was speaking about a literal wall when he said he wanted a wall on the Mexican border, but many supporters took the wall as a metaphor for increased border security. With all of this, it would be impossible for him to actually keep all of his promises, which, in theory, should leave at least some supporters disappointed (and it undoubtably will upset some of them.) But for many voters, it matters not what policies are enacted; what matters is what’s actually happening in their own lives. And for Trump voters, what matters politically usually isn’t economic; it’s cultural.

Trump is part of a movement that could probably be best classified as “soft alt-right,” i.e. a “conservatism” that emphasizes issues like immigration and white identity politics over traditional American conservative issues like marriage and abortion, but without the explicit white nationalism most alt-righters (née fascists) profess. So, what’s ailing America today in these voters’ minds? It’s issues like immigration, crime, and the conscious rejection of “traditional American values.”

Let’s use immigration to illustrate my point. Immigration is a nuanced issue, and what leads mainstream Trump voters to oppose (or sometimes support) immigration varies by the region from which the immigrants are from and the circumstances under which they arrived. But, as a general rule, immigration is, in their minds, a bad thing for three reasons: Look at an attempt to establish a Poultry facitility in rural Nickerson, NE that was thwarted by locals in the Spring of 2016. There were plenty of reasons for Nickerson residents to oppose the plant, some of which had nothing to do with who was working there; these were the primary reasons given by those who organized the opposition. Perhaps it’s naïve of me, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that their only grievances were with the plant itself and not with anyone who’d be working there. But, as the GOP recently learned the hard way, just because the leadership thinks xenophobia should have nothing to do with their cause doesn’t mean the base agrees. For many Nickerson opponents, a fear of newcomers—particularly Muslim and Latino newcomers—was the primary motivator in their opposition. They were afraid that seeing an influx of Latinos and Muslims would permanently vitiate the social fabric their community, that the place they’d called home would forever disappear. But Nickerson is just a microcosmic example of common sentiments: the fear that immigrants are flowing into this country unmonitored and are ruining our communities, and it’s just these fears that play into Trump’s hands. Trump said that yes, immigrants were taking their jobs, yes, immigrants were a burden on the social safety net, yes, immigrants are often violent and are usually dangerous, and yes, they’re coming in here at record rates and the government is encouraging it. Of course, none of this is true. Immigrants, in many ways, do more to contribute to the stability of the social safety net than the typical American does; any aspirant visa applicant, especially one from the Middle East, is going to go through a two year waiting period while they are subject to extensive (one might even say extreme) vetting. Immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born citizens, and while there is just a tiny sliver of truth to the claim that immigrants are taking low-skilled jobs for very little money, a healthy majority of those jobs aren’t viewed as desirable for most American workers anyway. To sum up this entire paragraph in one sentence, these particular concerns are, quite frankly, imiagined. The problmes don’t exist; they are products of fear-mongering propaganda on stations like Fox News and websites like Brietbart. Which means they’re easy to “solve.”

Donald Trump doesn’t have to do anything to solve problems like rising crime, immigrant takeover, or a constant threat of death from extremists, because none of these problems are real. Yes there are immigrants, yes terrorism in all forms is a legitimate threat, but they are likely not the most pressing issues in the lives of most Americans. Yet it seems that they are what Americans are most afraid of.

If these ideas stem almost entirely from the human imagination, then it can follow that the same faculty can just as easily kill it. If Trump increases border patrol, then his supporters may feel like immigration and crime are down, even if that isn’t the case. If Trump puts limits on immigration from the Middle East (or even discusses such limits without implementation,) then many will have the perception that they’re safer under him than they were under Obama. In short, Trump doesn’t have to do anything to solve the things his supporters are most concerned about.

Now, it’s important to add one caveat to all of this: While it’s true that most of these threats may be dangerous in nothing but perception, that doesn’t mean the perception is easily eradicated. The media deserves even more blame for planting and nurturing these perceptions than Trump does. Every single day, FOX News devotes most of their time to blasting out horror stories about out-of-control youth at Black Lives Matter rallies and the dangers posited by that foreigner living down the street. The reason that FOX News does this is that the only discernible reason for their existence is to get people to vote Republican, and the surest way to do that is to convince their viewers that their way of life is under attack. FOX News feeds off of such coverage, and it’s tough imagining them changing in any way that might hurt their viewership (and therefore profits.) And even if FOX didn’t exist, tribalism would. Tribalism is a potent drug, and most of it derives from within. So, no matter what Trump does, his supporters may not see these problems as fixed.

But regardless, the risk is till there. Trump created an alternate reality in 2016 and forced the Democratic Party to run a campaign in that reality, a task which they were not prepared for. Many people hoped that voters would sour on four years of Trump failures, but there’s no guarantee that will happen. Trump’s campaign in 2020 will be grounded in a false reality, and Democrats need to be prepared.