After Tuesday’s losses, some political commentators are wondering if Donald Trump is finally losing support among his base. Michael Kruse recently visited the town of coal and steel town of Johnstown, PA, a year after he and Trump visited it at a campaign stop where Trump promised to bring back the coal and steel industries. Kruse says that even though Trump has not delivered on any of the promises that he made to them in his campaign stop, the people he spoke to last year still back him, mainly because Trump attacks the people that they hate, and they take at face value Trump’s “insistent declarations of success no matter the reality” and his inveterate blame-shifting.
At a raucous rally in late October, right downtown in their minor-league hockey arena, he vowed to restore the mines and the mills that had been the lifeblood of the region until they started closing some 40 years ago, triggering the “American carnage” Trump would talk about in his inaugural address: massive population loss, shrinking tax rolls, communal hopelessness and ultimately a raging opioid epidemic. When Trump won, people here were ecstatic. But they’d heard generations of politicians make big promises before, and they were also impatient for him to deliver.
“Six months to a year,” catering company owner Joey Del Signore told me when we met days after the election. “A couple months,” retired nurse Maggie Frear said, before saying it might take a couple of years. “He’s just got to follow through with what he said he was going to do,” Schilling said last November. Back then, there was an all-but-audible “or else.”
But what I wasn’t prepared for was how readily these same people had abandoned the contract he had made with them. Their satisfaction with Trump now seems untethered to the things they once said mattered to them the most.
“I don’t know that he has done a lot to help,” Frear told me. Last year, she said she wouldn’t vote for him again if he didn’t do what he said he was going to do. Last week, she matter-of-factly stated that she would. “Support Trump? Sure,” she said. “I like him.”
When I asked Del Signore about the past year here, he said he “didn’t see any change because we got a new president.” He nonetheless remains an ardent proponent. “He’s our answer.”
I asked Schilling what would happen if the next three years go the way the last one has.
“I’m not going to blame him,” Schilling said. “Absolutely not.”
Is there anything that could change her mind about Trump?
“Nope,” she said.
This reality ought to get the attention of anyone who thinks they will win in 2018 or 2020 by running against Trump’s record. His supporters here, it turns out, are energized by his bombast and his animus more than any actual accomplishments. For them, it’s evidently not what he’s doing so much as it is the people he’s fighting. Trump is simply and unceasingly angry on their behalf, battling the people who vex them the worst—“obstructionist” Democrats, uncooperative establishment Republicans, the media, Black Lives Matter protesters and NFL players (boy oh boy do they hate kneeling NFL players) whom they see as ungrateful, disrespectful millionaires.
And they love him for this.
By last week, though, John George told me that despite what they might have said people here didn’t really believe Trump would make good on all his promises. “Deep down inside,” he said, “I don’t think anybody thought the steel mills were going to come back.”
So many people in so many other areas of the country watch with dismay and existential alarm Trump’s Twitter hijinks, his petty feuds, his penchant for butting into areas where the president has no explicit, policy-relevant role. All of that only animates his supporters here. For them, Trump is their megaphone. He is the scriptwriter. He is a singularly effective, intuitive creator of a limitless loop of grievance and discontent that keeps them in absolute lockstep.
There is undoubtedly something satisfying in having someone in high office loudly and publicly articulate all one’s own grievances and doing so can carry Trump a long way. There is also the psychological fact that once one has publicly committed strong support for something (a politician, a religion, an ideology, even a sports team), one finds it hard to admit that one was wrong in one’s judgment and walk it back. Such people will try and find a reason, any reason, to justify their continued support and will even strengthen it, as some of the people in Kruse’s article seem to have done. So we should not expect large-scale abandonment of Trump as long as his rhetoric targets the people they hate.
But there may be a small slice of people who were lukewarm, who silently voted for Trump despite their misgivings. It is these people who might drift away. Given the delicate balance, it would not take a large number of such people to switch their votes to cause problems for Republicans in future elections, and Tuesday’s results might be a sign of that slight shift though it is too small a sample to draw deep conclusions.
What we can be sure of is that Trump will retain enough strong and vocal support that he will be able to hold rallies with the enthusiastic crowds that he needs to feed his ego, and this will convince him that he is popular and so he will continue to do what he is doing. Trump’s “insistent declarations of success no matter the reality” and his inveterate blame-shifting are a potent source of self-delusion. He will continue to think he is winning whatever others might say, so why should he change?