As Donald Trump entered the second year in office, he seemed determined to destabilize his administration’s fragile status quo. He pushed out a cluster of advisers, replacing them with people he liked watching on TV. He forged ahead on his long-promised policy of trade war. He decided to take the starring, summit-organizing role in his own North Korean brinksmanship. And he stepped up — well, or just continued, it’s hard to make quantitative judgments — his rhetorical war against the Robert Mueller investigation.
For those of us who feared disaster from this presidency but saw the first year as a period when Trump was relatively constrained, his “I’m in charge here!” pivot was a worrying phenomenon. But it’s the nature of the Trump era to confound all expectations, so naturally what followed the Cohn-Tillerson-McMaster exits and the tariff announcements and the stock market wobbles was … the most politically successful six weeks of Trump’s presidency to date.
Now “successful” is a relative term: Our president is still deeply unpopular, still under investigation and embroiled in scandal, still unable to push a substantial agenda through the Congress, still likely to see his party lose the House of the Representatives in November.
But allowing for the low bar, March and April brought a lot of good news for Donald Trump. For one thing, his basic political position has improved: He’s up to 44 percent job approval in the RealClearPolitics average and 41 percent in FiveThirtyEight, some of the highest numbers since the beginning of his administration. And his party’s situation has improved too, with the Democratic generic ballot lead no longer large enough to guarantee a wipeout of the G.O.P.
This improvement might be surprising if you just follow the drumbeat of scandal coverage in the press, which has arguably only gotten stronger as Trump’s lawyer has fallen under investigation and the Stormy Daniels business has gone from a sideshow to a main attraction.
But while the pace of scandalous news hasn’t slackened, the nature of that news has changed: A scandal that began with the promise of republic-shaking revelations about presidential treason is increasingly dominated by sex and lies and possible campaign-finance violations — in other words, Clinton-in-the-1990s territory, rather than the Manchurian Candidate scenario.
Mueller may still have revelations that could swing the story back to where it began; the Trump supporters who confidently call collusion a “conspiracy theory” seem as overconfident as Russia obsessives cheering every “boom” on Twitter. But it’s very clear that Trump is better off politically with the investigative focus on his attempts to hide his sex life rather than on the Russia business. And while there would be justice in his going down for porn-star shenanigans, and partial redemption for religious conservatives if they finally abandoned him over the issue, the partisan reflex on the right is too strong to expect anything save a replay of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal with the parties’ roles reversed.
Especially since Trump now enjoys an economy whose unemployment rate has fallen to late-1990s territory. In this climate, the president isn’t likely to win a trade war but he can afford to fight a little one, and like Clinton in 1998 he can expect a little more forgiveness from voters for his sleaze.
Without handing out the Nobel Peace Prizes ridiculously prematurely (of course the Nobel committee would never do that …), it’s clear that Trump’s North Korean strategy has not prevented diplomatic efforts from advancing, or put us on some irreversible march to war. This makes northeast Asia the latest theater to defy, for now, the fears of sudden destabilization that drove so much reasonable foreign-policy anxiety about this president.
But if the economy and foreign policy have boosted the president’s fortunes, the most important boost may be coming from inside his own party, in the form of the totally nonexistent agenda that congressional Republicans have put forward since the tax bill passed.
That nonexistence is, of course, an indictment of the G.O.P., but politically it’s vastly preferable to the deeply unpopular legislation that the Republicans might otherwise be pursuing, if they were to reattempt Obamacare repeal or pursue some other item from the zombie-Reaganite playbook.
A core fact of our era is that the national Republican Party is politically effective only as a vehicle for anti-liberalism, a rallying point for all the disparate groups who feel threatened by having our cultural elite in full control of government. Which means the G.O.P. is often more popular the less it attempts to legislate at all.
If Trump has consistently missed opportunities to be the post-Reaganite policy maker that his party needs, he is now at least benefiting politically from exactly that inaction. And if Mueller and Kim and the economy cooperate, he could keep winning, within limits, for a while.