HILLSBORO, Ohio - After President Trump’s less-than-stellar performance side by side with Russian President Vladimir Putinin Helsinki, many Trump critics may have hoped, reasonably, that Trump’s approval ratings - already historically low compared with other presidents - would take a nose-dive.
Instead, his numbers remained basically steady. A July NBC/Wall Street Journal sampling even found that Trump’s approval rating climbed one point from the previous month, to 45 percent, and, most notably, his 88 percent approval among Republicans is the highest of his presidency.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff, part of the team that conducted the poll, said the stability in the president’s numbers was noteworthy, considering not only the widely panned summit with Putin but also other controversies, including the separation of families at the border and Trump’s rocky NATO meetings.
Trump’s haters - it is not too strong a word - accuse the GOP base of abandoning its principles or being mindlessly enslaved to the “cult of Trump.” It is time to consider that almost everyone has been misreading the Republican Party’s core for several years.
In 2008 and 2012, the eventual GOP nominee was, in both cases, a compromise candidate. Republicans were not particularly enthusiastic about either John McCain or Mitt Romney, each of whom amassed about 10 million votes in their respective primaries. By contrast, Trump racked up about 14 million primary votes in 2016.
While McCain, a senator from Arizona, is esteemed for his military service and his courage as a POW - Trump’s own ill-conceived comments in 2015 notwithstanding - neither he nor Romney is viewed as a stalwart defender of the GOP; both are willing to criticize their own party at the drop of a hat, like a father constantly ashamed of his own children. Trump, by comparison, won’t apologize or back down. The base loves him for it.
When I was growing up, my uncle, Bill Kibler, was a figure who both intimidated and fascinated me. A big, loud Navy veteran, farmer, outdoorsman and county Republican Party chairman, Uncle Bill was never shy with an opinion, often stated in the most politically incorrect manner. His verbal daggers frequently targeted his own party.
“They don’t have any guts,” he would say every time Republicans either folded, in his opinion, or acquiesced to the Democrats or the media on one issue or another. “The Democrats never back down or apologize. They play hardball. We’re sissies,” he would say, except sissies was not the word he used.
Uncle Bill passed away in 2008 at age 84, and it is a cosmic injustice that he did not live to see Donald Trump become president. He would be gratified that, finally, there has arrived a Republican who won’t apologize, come hell or high water, for wanting to enforce immigration laws, for demanding that our allies pony up more for our common defense and - most impressively, as far as the base is concerned - for giving as good as he gets from the media.
It will pain NeverTrump Republicans to admit it, but the party for which they pine has, for many years, been little more than a figment of their imaginations. The GOP base is not comprised of people wringing their hands over Trump’s peccadilloes or embracing the left’s laundry list of grievances.
No, the GOP base is Uncle Bill. It is a coalition of die-hard partisans who have long resented Republicans, past and present, who surrender to Democrats or cater to the liberal media’s definition of appropriateness.
Fred Yang, a Democratic pollster also involved with the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, noted, “The more Trump gets criticized by the media, the more his base seems to rally behind him.” For the base, that assessment represents long-standing policy, but they consider the effort wasted on Republicans who cave to criticism before the grass roots has time to rally to their side.
I recently argued that the GOP has become the party of Trump. But it may be more accurate that the party of Trump has existed for years and has just been waiting for Trump to arrive. The base won’t abandon him - not over Russia, not over family separations, not over Stormy Daniels and company, and certainly not over his attacks on the media.
In 1992, Hillary Clinton famously protested that she wasn’t just some Tammy Wynette-style wife blindly standing by her man despite her husband’s philandering ways. She added, “I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together.”
Likewise, however badly Trump behaves, and regardless of the criticism he faces, grass-roots Republicans are standing by him and going through it with him, defiantly and without apology. They finally have the president they’ve been waiting for, and they’re not letting him go.
Gary Abernathy is a freelance writer based in Hillsboro, Ohio.