July 30, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Trade War + Russia = Weakness

One poll says Trump's losing support in the Midwest. Another says he's not tough enough on Russia.

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My thesis Thursday was that Donald Trump is not the Teflon-Coated Super-Pol he’s portrayed to be. Things always stick. The result is a historically unpopular president.

But why are Trump’s Michigan and Wisconsin numbers so bad? Aren’t the Rust Belt states where the president has found his sturdiest base of power?

That’s the question at the heart of today’s thesis.

A leading theory comes from Businessweek’s Joshua Green. He wrote that the trade war with China and other countries is being felt acutely in districts that Trump won in 2016. House Republicans there are in increasing danger of getting fired. Green cited the Crystal Ball newsletter from the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. It updated its House ratings. Green said: “All 17 changes were in favor of Democrats.”

A word of caution here.

“In favor of Democrats” in this case means, at the very best, that 17 Republican districts are now “toss-ups.” That’s better than “lean Republican” or “likely Republican” but that’s not the same, in my view, as “in favor of Democrats.” Still, the trade war is not helping the GOP. It’s important to try to understand why.

Some say economics and voter behavior are two sides of the same causal coin. They are not. Sometimes, they are, but not always. The most obvious illustration of this is that the US economy is pretty good while the president’s approval is pretty bad. So take everything you hear about “It’s the economy, stupid!” with a grain of salt.

Some have suggested the more tariffs hurt manufacturing in Michigan and Wisconsin, and hurt farming interests in Iowa and Indiana, the more Republican voters will revolt. I see reason to doubt this claim. I’ve called it Republican masochism. In June, I wrote that: “Republicans will continue to harm, even mutilate, themselves, with gladness in their hearts for God’s gift of granting them the glory of a Republican president.”

Still, Chinese tariffs really are hurting agribusiness and small farmers. In this context, the choice for Republicans might not be Trump or no Trump. It might be both/and.

Republicans can stay true to a Republican president even if they send Democrats to Washington to make Trump stop hurting them economically. In other words, they can split the difference. After all, Trump will be president no matter what.

But I don’t think economics alone explains Trump’s rating decline after coming back from Helsinki. Here, I’m going to psychologize a little to say that economic pain gave some Republican voters a reason to rethink things they had taken for granted, and they were rethinking things right around the time the president threw us under the bus.

Put another way, I think tariffs forced some Republican voters to doubt for a moment what they were seeing on Fox News and to open their minds. Once they did, they could see, perhaps for the first time, this president is not the strongman he says he is. Indeed, he’s actually weak. As I’ve said before, strength is Trump’s No. 1 political asset, and the appearance of strength is what keeps a lot of Republican voters in line. This is a façade, of course, but that’s not the point. The point is maintaining the con.

When I say Trump’s numbers went down after voters got a clear look at his weakness, I’m speculating. But I can point to an NPR poll taken around the same time as the NBC News poll. Like NBC’s, it was also taken after Trump returned from Europe. Unlike NBC, NPR asked if the Russians “interfered in the 2016 election.” A stunning 69 percent said yes. This includes a majority (51 percent!) of Republicans.

The NPR poll then asked if the president has been too tough or not tough enough on the Russians. It found that 64 percent said not tough enough, including a plurality (47 percent!) of GOP voters. (Independents said yes by 64 percent, too. As you know, this is important, because independents are sometimes Republicans in disguise.)

Again, I’m speculating, but I wonder if it were possible for Republican voters to see Trump’s weakness if they had not already been enduring economic pain. After all, Fox News will tell them whatever the president wants Fox News to say. It would take real-world pain to jolt them. And just when it did, the president took Russia’s side.

Whether that leads to anything else is a question for another day.

In case you missed it …

Who Do You Trust, Cohen or Trump?
Cohen’s claim is a game-changer. Do you believe it? The media should help decide.

The Media Myth of Teflon Don
Things stick. They always stick. The result is the most unpopular presidency in modern memory.

Do House Republicans Need Russia to Win?
Given their refusal to fund election security, that’s a fair question.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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