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Marking the first year of our petulant president

| Friday, January 19, 2018

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the presidential inaugural ceremonies that installed Donald J. Trump as the 45th president. A mere year ago, the transition of power sparked both cheers along the National Mall as well as destructive protests throughout the streets of the nation’s capitol. Many of the protesting population who wreaked havoc last year plan to return during the upcoming weekend to renew their opposition of Trump residing in the White House. For them, Trump is a catalyst that energizes their protesting passions. However, for most of the public — and as history has repeatedly revealed for other, and more electorally successful, chief executives than this petulant president — Trump fatigue will become an inevitable political phenomenon that they too eventually embrace.
CBS “Late Show” host and comic Stephen Colbert contends that Trump fatigue does not exist when he joked earlier this month, “He is president of the United States. There is no escaping it. It’s like having oxygen fatigue.” But reports of Trump voter fatigue surfaced as early as the 2016 primary campaign cycle when in May historian Joseph A. Palermo asserted on the HuffPost blog, “People have been predicting a Donald Trump flameout since February, but he kept proving them wrong by winning primaries. Their predictions might not have been in error — just premature. As the ‘Summer of Trump’ (2015) gave way to the ‘Autumn Winter and Spring of Trump,’ there are signs the novelty might be wearing off.”
On the The Washington Post’s Opinion page, about six months into the Trump presidency last August, MSNBC’s morning political talk show host Joe Scarborough cited eroding Trump support from Pittsburgh to Pensacola. In a Pittsburgh focus group session, irritated Trump supporters agonized over how he overexposes himself on television by dominating news cycles, how his personality overwhelms his message and how his demeanor conflicts with historically presidential temperament. One woman summarized, “Everybody knew he was a nut, but there comes a point in time where you need to become professional. He’s not even professional let alone presidential. Chill out, man.”
The Trump election is attributable to a handful of states he won by persuading traditionally working class, blue collar Democrats like my Pennsylvania relatives to vote for his populist positions. Historically, as time slowly drips during any four-year presidential term, the American public grows weary. As circumstances evolve, a popular president can quickly and easily lose all of his electoral capital. Richard Nixon’s impeachment may be considered an outlier after he won 49 of 50 states in 1972. However, in 1964, Lyndon Johnson swept all except a half-dozen states, but was compelled to leave office due to the Vietnam War. Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan won his landslide reelection, but two years later lost control of Congress amid the Iran-Contra guns for hostages debacle. For Trump, the political tea leaves of his impending 2020 Waterloo may merely be nine months away in the off-term election results.
It begs political science scholars to wonder what type of president will Americans accept after Trump. One approach is to deconstruct presidential elections working backwards from the 2016 campaign. How do most presidents win? They attract a horde of voters who oppose their opponents. For instance, the Obama election repudiated a Bush 43 recession and war. The Bush 43 election was an admonishment of Clinton’s impeachment. Clinton’s election was a “time to change” response to Reagan’s third term through Bush 41. Reagan was elected to restore economic stability and patriotic pride. The Carter election over an appointed Ford was an admonishment of Nixon’s impeachment. Nixon won in a hope that he would end the Vietnam War and Johnson was elected in memory of Kennedy. Therefore, other than Bush 41, the Kennedy-Nixon campaign of 1960 was the last time the American public voted for each candidate without a substantial anti-sentimental element.
Moving forward to 2020, it is a sure bet that based on current attitudes, American voters will have tired of the Trumponian style and many of his personal characteristics that helped eke him to office four years prior. The political pendulum that once favored Trump’s outlandish carnival barker, self-promoting style as compared to the Obama jazzy chill-cool personae may not swing completely back, but will definitely have moved away from Trump as history suggests. It may be difficult to gauge — removing policy preferences and solely basing the national mood on whom the voters at the time would want to share an hour drinking a beer — whether or not the decisive traditionally Democratic working class voters who voted for Trump will abandon him due to fatigue. The political tea leaves will begin to foretell after each party’s nominating conventions.
Candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) or Corey Booker (D-NJ) must walk a presentation tightrope. Their fiery rhetoric can inspire, but only places themselves on equal levels with their toe-to-toe gravitas. They will need to contrast enough to satisfy voters to believe that it is worth dumping Trump. Perhaps a surprisingly little-known dark horse candidate can emerge like Sanders did in 2016. While voters generally are known for possessing a politically short attention span and minuscule memory, a majority within the electoral process usually latches onto one candidate’s personae. Presently, the odds stand that they will not return a petulant president.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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