President Donald Trump continues to push for more coal mining as a signal to his Appalachian and Upper Midwest base. He opposes gun control as a gesture to his National Rifle Association base. He moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem as a symbol to his religious-conservative base, both among Orthodox Jews and the Christian Right. And this week the President moved to impose heavy tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum.
These actions – especially the tariffs on metals from Canada and elsewhere that serve as special favours for steel-producing states, all of which voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 – do not by themselves separate Mr. Trump from other modern chief executives, who also tended with great care to their political bases. Presidents routinely do this, almost always because their political instincts are congruent with the wishes of their political bases. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush lowered taxes, George H.W. Bush nominated conservative Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Barack Obama supported same-sex marriage. All of these acts played to their political bases.
But of the many factors that set Mr. Trump apart from his predecessors – wars against his own Justice Department, for example, or repeated attacks on his defeated election foe – one of the most striking is his reluctance to take steps that might alienate his political base.
Nearly every recent president has diverged, at least on some vital issues, from his base.
Lyndon Johnson alienated his Southern base by embracing civil rights, Richard Nixon defied his anti-Communist base by travelling to China and the Soviet Union, Mr. Reagan took on his hard-line base by embracing arms control, George H.W. Bush infuriated his conservative base by supporting new taxes and Bill Clinton inflamed his liberal base by tightening welfare restrictions.
There are, to be sure, logical explanations for Mr. Trump’s reluctance to step from the orthodoxies of his political base. The President has fragile public-support ratings and thus has less political capital to spend than many of his predecessors. A recent Gallup Poll showed Mr. Trump with a 43-per-cent approval rating, lower than Barack Obama (48 per cent) at this point of his presidency and George H.W. Bush (65 per cent).
Even so, Mr. Trump – who as a billionaire with an Ivy League degree and a city penthouse has weaker ties to his rural, less educated and poorer base than his predecessors – has an unusual reluctance to diverge from his base. The President who prides himself on the art of the deal and whose 2016 presidential campaign was an audacious departure from every political norm is apparently reluctant to make an audacious departure from his new-found constituency.
Mr. Trump’s predecessors were prompted to depart from their natural constituencies for several reasons – to broaden their support (Mr. Clinton’s movement to the right just before his nomination in 1996 to lure support away from senator Robert Dole, his general-election rival); to address an urgent crisis (the elder Mr. Bush’s abandonment of his “read my lips” vow not to increase taxes as part of a major deal with the Democrats to battle the burgeoning deficit); to right a historic wrong (Mr. Johnson’s support for civil-rights legislation); or to secure a place in history (Mr. Nixon’s trips to the heart of Communism).
“Nixon wasn’t afraid to play against his base on China,” said John Aloysius Farrell, a Nixon biographer. “He understood American politics enough to know he was beholden to the right wing but he had the audacity to pull this off. He wanted the freedom from that base to pursue a vision.”
The moral verdict of history on several of those cases, especially on Mr. Nixon’s overtures to the Soviet Union and China and Mr. Johnson’s embrace of civil rights, is clear and positive. The political verdict of some of them also is clear but far less positive. Though Mr. Clinton survived the qualms of the liberals in the Democratic Party over his support of the welfare bill, Mr. Bush’s support for the tax increase in 1990 spawned a rebellion within his own party that contributed to his 1992 defeat and prompted an uprising within the GOP that eventually doomed the moderate Republican element of the party that he represented.
Mr. Johnson’s support for the rights of black Americans, which had its origins in his manoeuvring as Senate majority leader to win a moderate civil-rights bill in 1957, has a more complicated legacy. The 36th president’s speech after the beatings of black marchers in Selma, Ala., in 1965 (“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy”) sealed his reputation as a civil-rights pioneer. A year earlier, when he signed the Civil Rights Act, he reportedly told an aide that he was signing away the South for a generation; the provenance of that quotation has been questioned, but the truth of it is nearly indisputable.
Mr. Johnson was a southerner, the product of the Democratic Solid South that was built in large measure on support for segregation against traditional Republican support for integration. By 1968, Mr. Nixon had adopted a “Southern Strategy,” positioning the GOP eventually to assume the domination of the region. In 2016, Mr. Trump swept the Old Confederacy – except Virginia.
“It’s vitally important for a President to move from his bases if it’s in the interest of the country,” Mark Updegrove, former director of the Johnson Library, said in an interview. “You can’t exercise power unless you attain it, of course, so you have to have that base. But it gives you political viability and a better shot at making history by doing the great good deed for the country.”
Mr. Trump, to be sure, is in no danger of being ignored by future historians. Perhaps he is searching for an occasion – maybe on social tolerance, perhaps on health and safety regulation – to buck his base for the greater good. For now, he is sticking with the constituency that helped deliver his presidency and, in the process, triggering a global trade war and making himself vulnerable to critics who charge he is hurting the very American industries (and workers) he promised to help.