Protests didn't hurt Reagan
Protests didn't hurt Reagan
By Julian Zelizer
Is President Donald Trump in the process of imploding? Some see reason to think so.
Given the major fallout over his travel ban, ranging from the spontaneous protests that have broken out worldwide to a federal judge ruling that the ban needed to be stopped, it seems as though Mr Trump is struggling.
Over the past few days, many commentators have pointed to the President's abysmally low approval ratings, with 53 per cent of Americans unhappy with the way that he has handled the job, as evidence that his power may be vastly limited by his unpopularity. With Mr Trump madly (and impotently) tweeting about "so-called" judges, the past week has offered a real sense that this President can be stopped.
Yet his opponents probably should not start uncorking the champagne bottles just yet.
Former president Ronald Reagan, whose approval ratings fell from 51 per cent in his first year in office to a meagre 34 per cent by 1982, was also the focus of international and domestic fury. Mr Reagan triggered an international uproar when he insisted on the deployment of 572 intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe, fulfilling a Nato agreement that had been finalised in 1979.
When Mr Reagan moved this plan forward, there was an outcry from New York to the streets of Paris. Tens of thousands of moderate and left-wing Europeans demonstrated against these new weapons on the grounds that they would escalate the threat of nuclear war. Within the United States, the nuclear- freeze movement ramped up into high gear, warning that this deployment was just one among many things that the President had done to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Despite falling approval ratings, Mr Reagan's support among Republicans kept growing - propelling him to another term in 1984. Protests against Mr Trump, even as they diminish his overall approval ratings, are unlikely to budge support from the coaliProtests against Mr Trump, even as they diminish his overall approval ratings, are unlikely to budge support from the coalition that won him the election, and may well cement it.
On July 12, 1982, almost a million people came to a protest in New York City to express their support for freezing the production of nuclear weapons and to state their anger about Mr Reagan.
"My belief," said then Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, "is that Reagan was not put on earth by God to bring us supply-side economics. His role is to sit down with (Leonid) Brezhnev and end the arms race, to do for nuclear arms what (Richard) Nixon did for China. My role is to create the atmospherics, the public and congressional support, that will make Reagan the greatest man who has ever lived. He can reject it, of course, but we will have tried".
The freeze movement drew millions of adherents, while in Congress, the House passed amendments that prohibited the administration from sending any more assistance to anti-communist forces overseas. The protests would continue over the following year, and Mr Reagan's approval ratings would remain low until 1984 (reaching 41 per cent in January 1983). But it would not matter.
Despite falling approval ratings, Mr Reagan's support among Republicans kept growing - propelling him to another term in 1984.
The problem was that Mr Reagan's support among Republicans kept growing.
While Democrats saw a renegade president whose bombast threatened to trigger a nuclear war, many Republicans saw a heroic leader who was standing up to the evils of communism and taking on all of his opponents, whether they were in Congress, on the streets, or in the media. Mr Reagan found a way to use the protesters filling the streets to his advantage, depicting them as one more opponent to the national interest that he was willing to take on. He also proposed his Strategic Defence Initiative (which critics dubbed "Star Wars"), a hypothetical missile shield that would protect the US from attack, as a muscular, aggressive alternative to freezing production of nuclear weapons.
Many were shocked when Mr Reagan sailed to a landslide re-election victory in 1984 against Mr Walter Mondale. After all, he had come off as unpredictable, aggressive and unschooled, not to mention suffering from a low approval rating throughout his first term and facing popular protests, just like Mr Trump.
Mr Trump governs in a different era. His electoral college victory, while losing the popular vote, is much narrower than Mr Reagan's, and the electorate is much more polarised, meaning it is harder now to switch large blocs of votes from blue to red. Yet, he could still capitalise on the same tough-man tactic Mr Reagan did, and spin protests and outcry in his favour.
So far, even as Mr Trump's approval ratings drop, his base remains engaged. In reviewing the approval polls last week, it is important to note the partisan divide: 10 per cent of Democrats approve of Mr Trump, while 90 per cent of Republicans do; 88 per cent of Democrats oppose the executive order on refugees, while 88 per cent of Republicans support it.
Atlantic Media editor Ron Brownstein pointed out that 59 per cent to 38 per cent of non-college educated whites, the heart of the Trump coalition, approve of what he is doing. In other words, the coalition that won him the election last year is not signalling displeasure with its pick, which bodes well for Mr Trump's chances in 2020. Protests, even as they diminish his overall approval ratings, are unlikely to budge that either, and may well cement it.
Mr Trump never intended, nor does he intend, to be a uniter. He is a president who is the ultimate product of our partisan age. His strategy appears tailored to play upon divisions, solidifying support among Republicans and retaining the support of those slivers of the Democratic electorate who were enchanted by his economic arguments and his national security bombast. If he can do that, even with the kind of controversy and pushback that flared over the past several days, he may be able to keep the Republican Congress on his side.
And in that case, he can show Americans that he is a man of his word and a man of action, all the while maintaining the base of electoral support that won him the presidency.