US Politics

Trump's election one year on: What do Americans think of him now?


Donald Trump shocked the world when he beat Hillary Clinton in the race for the White House on November 8, 2016. Today, the US remains as divided as ever.

There were two huge celebrations set for November 8, 2016; both were in Midtown Manhattan.

The biggest was at the Javits Convention Centre on the Hudson River where, under its symbolic glass ceiling, thousands of Hillary Clinton supporters were preparing to welcome the first female president of the United States.

Democratic luminaries addressed an enthusiastic crowd and Katy Perry waited in the wings to perform the national anthem; her self-empowerment ballad Roar had become part of the Team Hillary soundtrack.

The stage was set for a Clinton victory
The stage was set for a Clinton victory.
Getty Images

A fifteen-minute cab-ride across town, at the Hilton on 6th Avenue, hundreds of Republican supporters were gathered for what many thought was Donald Trump's rather optimistically titled ‘victory party’.

Dozens of camera crews from around the world had their lenses trained on a stage cut into the shape of the US at the Javits, waiting for Ms Clinton to claim victory. But as the night unfolded, those cameras would swing around to capture the shock, grief and nausea on the faces of her staff and supporters.

Worry started to set in at 9pm; Mr Trump’s numbers were stronger than expected. Ms Clinton was earning a steady margin in the popular vote, but not in the swing states that mattered. 

Newscasters began to speculate about whether the Republican candidate might reach the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory. The election tracker on the New York Times website twitched closer and closer to a tossup.  

Further uptown, Trump supporters were becoming increasingly excited at the prospect of an upset. By narrow margins, vital swing states began to fall to Mr Trump. Florida fell with its 58 electoral votes, then came Ohio with 18.

Trump supporters
Trump supporters at the New York Hilton Midtown on election night 2016.
Getty Images North America

At 1:36 am, the Associated Press called Pennsylvania and its 20 electoral votes for Mr Trump. The last Republican president to win the state was George Bush Senior – in 1988. 

Ms Clinton called Mr Trump and conceded, a call she later described as “mercifully brief”. In the early hours of the morning, her staff were sent to scout for a location for her concession speech. 

Clinton supporters
Deflated: Clinton supporters on election night 2016.

Back at the Hilton, Trump supporters were elated. For months they had been mocked for claiming the media was out of touch and the polls were wrong – but in the early hours of Wednesday morning, they were vindicated.

In the Hilton ballroom, just after 2:45 am, Vice President-elect Mike Pence introduced the next president of the United States to a roaring crowd. 

Donald Trump entered, stage left, as a classic American orchestral score rang out; the theme tune to Harrison Ford’s 1997 film Air Force One.


'Warning signs' were there

It was an astounding victory that shocked observers from around the world. But one of those not so surprised at the result was Professor Helmut Norpoth, a political scientist at Stony Brook University.

Professor Norpoth had predicted a Trump win months earlier, risking ridicule for writing it was a “virtual certainty”.

“People were fixated on the overall picture which showed Hillary Clinton comfortably ahead,” he tells SBS World News.

“What they missed what was what was happening in a number of key states.

“If people had dug a little [deeper] into some of those states they might have seen the warning signs.”

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton gives her concession speech at The New Yorker Hotel the morning after losing the election.
The Washington Post

A group of voters in crucial states including Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania carried Mr Trump over the line that night. Former Obama voters in crucial manufacturing towns were now coming out to support the Republican candidate.

“We were getting killed in heavily white, working-class rural and exurban areas,” Ms Clinton would later write in her tell-all book What Happened.

It was those voters who delivered the presidency to Mr Trump.

US Election 2016 state breakdown
US Election 2016 state breakdown. Democrat wins in blue, Republicans in red.

A nation divided

In his victory speech, president-elect Donald Trump praised Ms Clinton’s hard-fought campaign and thanked her for her public service. 

“Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division,” he then said, promising to be a president for all Americans.

But one year on, the United States is as divided as ever.

The majority of Americans didn’t vote for their president, Ms Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of 2.8 million.

“It’s not so much that people love their own party more than they used to, but that they really, really hate the other party,” Seth Masket, Director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, tells SBS World News. 

Nowhere is that clearer than in online slanging matches and confrontations at political protests in the US. 

Progressives are often branded ‘libtards’; a derogatory term blending the words liberals and retards. 

Republicans who oppose Trump are labelled ‘cucks’; literally meaning a submissive man who is sexually cuckolded by a woman, but used by some in today’s alt-right circles to call out those showing weakness. 

Meanwhile, Trump supporters are often slurred as racists, sexists and fascists.

“That kind of hatred runs pretty deep, and it’s going to be something that’s very hard to get past,” Professor Masket says. 

Among politically-engaged Americans, it is clear that there are two very different views of Mr Trump’s first ten months in office. 

His opponents see an administration in disarray; petrified by the ever-deepening Russian hacking investigation and struggling to contain the impulses of an at times immature president.

“Adult day care centre,” is how Senator Bob Corker recently described the West Wing, and he's a Republican.

A series of high-profile resignations hasn’t helped Team Trump either. He has lost National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and Press Secretary Sean Spicer. The newly minted Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci only lasted 10 days.

Much of the White House agenda has been hindered by other branches of government; executive orders on immigration have been repeatedly blocked by the courts, the effort to repeal Obamacare collapsed in the Senate, and the promised Mexican border wall remains unfunded.

Anti-Trump protesters
Protesters in Washington DC on May 4, 2017 after the House of Representatives narrowly passed a Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.

But where opponents see calamity, supporters see sincerity. 

Mr Trump’s biggest backers see a well-meaning and unorthodox president under siege from a hostile press, activist judges, hysterical Democrats and weak-minded establishment Republicans. For them, the Russia investigation is a witch hunt - the establishment seeking to take down a rebel outsider.

And where the president has been allowed to act on his promises, he has. 

Mr Trump appointed a strong conservative to the Supreme Court in Neil Gorsuch and has withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord, fulfilling his promises to fight ‘globalists’ and put the US first.

“Unemployment is at an all-time low, the stock market is booming, huge corporations that have left the country are coming back due to the pro-business atmosphere,” says Joe Hession, a 20-something Trump supporter from Massachusetts who drove all through the night to attend the president’s inauguration.

“I'm very satisfied with my vote and would do it again in a heartbeat – especially considering the opposition,” he tells SBS World News. 

“The press is extremely harsh to his administration, he could cure world hunger and headlines would still be ‘Trump skimps on dessert’.”

Trump supporters
Demonstrators gather outside the White House to show support for President Trump on June 3, 2017 after he withdrew the US from the Paris climate accord.
Getty Images North America

But Mr Trump’s backers are still in a minority, one which has been thinning since he took office. The latest figures from aggregator Real Clear Politics show 39 per cent of Americans approve of the president, and 56 per cent disapprove – a net disapproval rating of 18 per cent. That makes Mr Trump the most unpopular first-year president in modern history. 

“It’s especially notable given that the economy is doing fairly well, the country is at relative peace, inflation is low and gas prices are low – all the things that are associated with popular presidents are in place, but he is still not that popular,” Professor Masket says.

Rather than broaden his appeal, Mr Trump has sought to satisfy his base and blast both Democrats and Republicans who stand in his way.

“He hasn’t really been winning any new friends,” Professor Masket says.

But the question for polling analysts is whether the president’s nationwide unpopularity really matters anymore, seen as his favourability ratings 12 months ago when he claimed victory were roughly where they are now.

How Trump overcomes unpopularity

Many Americans may not like Mr Trump, but he has proven at least once before that he has the capacity to get the right people in the right areas to vote for him. A recent poll conducted by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal showed there was at least one politician with a lower approval rating this year than Donald Trump: Hillary Clinton.

“If an election were simply a referendum on his presidency, I don’t think a lot of people would want to vote for him to run for a second term or even continue this one,” Professor Masket says. 

“On the other hand, if we were to run another election and he had the chance to demonise another opponent, I think it would be close, honestly.”

How would you rate Donald Trump's presidency?

Robert Cahaly is a pollster and Republican Senior Strategist with the Trafalgar Group in the US. He also correctly predicted a Trump victory 12 months ago. 

He tells SBS World News that the president has managed to drive a wedge between the Democrats’ inner city progressive base, and their blue-collar union supporters in rust-belt regions. The “political correctness” and evolving social attitudes of the former have not yet caught up with the latter, he claims, and sensitivities about race, culture and sexuality are ridiculed by many Trump supporters.

“They see that the America they know as kind of disappearing, and here is this guy standing up for the America they know,” Mr Cahaly says. 

Immigration and race relations proved to be fertile ground during the campaign, and one that Mr Trump continues to plough. He recently slammed NFL players who chose to kneel during the national anthem in protest against race-based police brutality. 

“As controversial as they are, the positions that he’s taken haven’t really abandoned those swing voters that he captured,” Mr Cahaly says.

But Mr Trump’s approach to remaking the electoral map has not been without its consequences; the Republican party has also been splintered. Both George W. Bush and George Bush Senior - the only living former Republican Presidents - have confirmed that they didn’t vote for Mr Trump.

“I’m worried that I will be the last Republican president,” the younger Bush recently told US historian Mark Updegrove.

Both former presidents, who now fall into the category of ‘moderate Republicans’, ran on platforms supporting free trade, immigration and American leadership. Mr Trump’s vulgarity and populism offends them. George Bush Senior voted for Ms Clinton.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York on November 8, 2016.
Getty Images

But despite a weakening in support from moderate Republicans, Mr Cahaly predicts Mr Trump will have a firm case for re-election in 2020 if Republicans can successfully pass legislation to lower corporate taxes and boost opportunities for the working class.

Professor Norpoth agrees: It is too soon to write the president off.

“If the economy were to tank or some big crisis overseas ties him down the way it did for Bush and Carter, then people might be tempted to abandon ship, but he’s been pretty lucky that so far none of this has happened,” he says. 

A lot will come down to who the Democrats put up as their candidate and whether they are able to woo those swing voters back into the fold, Professor Norpoth says.

“But with Donald Trump you have to be very careful about concluding that he’s not going to make it.”

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