WASHINGTON – As some on the right howled about a series of reversals by President Donald Trump on a number of his campaign promises — conned, betrayed, sold out, they said — Rush Limbaugh asked his listeners on Thursday whether any of that flip-flopping really mattered.
“See what Jeff Sessions is doing?” Limbaugh said of the attorney general, answering his own question: “Damn straight.”
“Have you seen what the job situation is?” he asked.
“Have you seen what the economic forecasts in the future are?” he went on.
The sentiment that Limbaugh was homing in on — the undented confidence that many Trump supporters have in the president as a get-things-done leader and dealmaker — is the reason many conservatives say they do not think Trump will suffer much as he abandons some of his policy stances. They are not inclined to punish him, they say, even after he backed off his hard lines on NATO, the Chinese and the Export-Import Bank, and attacked Syria after having opposed such intervention.
No matter how many people try to tell them they have been played for fools, much to their annoyance, that is not a conclusion they seem likely to reach before Trump even marks his 100th day in office.
They knew all along that they were not voting for a man with concrete convictions. And they continue to see that lack of rigidity — his preference for the transactional over the dogmatic — as a quality they want in a chief executive.
So while much of the country sees the swerving on policy as another sign of White House dysfunction, many conservatives shrug it off as esoteric jockeying over foreign alliances, currency manipulation and economic policy. They are focused more, they say, on what they see as a litany of recent victories.
Illegal border crossings are down sharply, a development that Sessions promoted in a visit to Arizona this week. The Department of Homeland Security just closed its process for accepting bids for construction of a border wall. A new Supreme Court justice adored by conservatives, Neil Gorsuch, joined the court this week. And Trump signed legislation on Thursday aimed at cutting off federal funding for Planned Parenthood.
“All of these things that people think are just minor issues, for people like me are huge,” said Joyce Kaufman, a conservative radio host in West Palm Beach, Florida, who dismisses the cries of hypocrisy from others on the right. “They can wring their hands all they want,” she scoffed.
As Trump’s policy reversals and other contentious moves draw scrutiny from the news media and criticism from his political adversaries, many Trump supporters seem to be rallying around him in the face of what they see as a relentless onslaught.
“That does tend to bond them to him — every day they see him attacked,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers. The group has been canvassing voters recently in the suburban Atlanta district that will hold a special congressional election next week that many see as a bellwether for Trump’s popularity.
Listing a number of Trump’s conservative moves — the Gorsuch nomination, executive orders cutting back on regulation and proposed budget cuts — Phillips said many conservatives wanted to give Trump a shot.
“They’re hopeful on the policy front,” he added.
Polls have shown that Trump’s popularity has not suffered significantly because of his contradictions and backsliding. The sense of whiplash, of course, is nothing new: He said he would build a wall along the entire southern border; but now, maybe, it will not go all the way across. He said he would deport everyone illegally in the United States; but, it is now clear, he has no such intention. He said he would put in place a “total and complete shutdown” of entry into the country by Muslims; but, he now says, it is not really a Muslim ban.
By this point, supporters seem to be getting used to it all, forgiving of what they see as logical shifts away from more extreme positions as part of the deal-making process.
“We’ve learned absolutely nothing about Donald Trump since he was inaugurated that wasn’t patently obvious for the last year and a half,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “Nothing new about his temperament, his knowledge base, his personality or his management style. Nothing.”
But when Trump is perceived as incompetent and incoherent, his image suffers far more.
Although his approval ratings have been low from the start, his popularity began a slide after the first week in March, when he insisted, without any evidence, that President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. His numbers got worse after he failed to get through Congress his first major legislative initiative: the repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act.
His policies appear to have had little to do with the slide, though it probably did not help that one of them — the ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries — has been tangled up and tainted by the continuing fight in the courts over its constitutionality.
But the policy reversals have left some on the right feeling betrayed, often bitterly so. The writer and pundit Ann Coulter, in a column prominently featured on the Breitbart News home page under the headline “Lassie, Come Home,” said Trump had turned his back on supporters like her who want America less engaged in conflicts overseas.
“We want the ‘president of America’ back — not ‘the president of the world,’ ” she wrote.
Laura Ingraham, the radio host and writer, has said she worries that Trump is drifting from the tenets of his campaign: anti-globalism, a smaller military footprint and conservative populism. But she does not sense that everyone shares her disappointment.
There are quantifiable signs of inching forward. There are the American companies like Ford and Carrier that say they are retaining jobs in the United States, even if those represent just a tiny sliver of overall employment. There has been a three-tenths-of-a-point drop in unemployment since January.
“Trump supporters who call in to my show are all over the map,” Ingraham said. And she is, for now, giving the president the benefit of the doubt, guessing that his shifts are intended to bring up his abysmal poll numbers so he can be a strong leader — the very trait that led people like her to support him.
“But why is that a bad thing?” she asked. “Should he want to be unpopular and see initiatives fail? After all, the higher his approval ratings, the more leverage he has with Congress and other foreign leaders.”