On Monday, the president of the United States blamed American law enforcement for souring U.S.-Russia relations; suggested that the Kremlin is more trustworthy than the CIA; and voiced approval for allowing FSB agents to interrogate Americans who’ve run afoul of Moscow — all while Vladimir Putin smirked from a podium a few feet to his left.
For many of Donald Trump’s normally sycophantic surrogates, this sorry spectacle was a gaffe too far. It was one thing for Trump to defend neo-Nazis, or psychologically torture masses of migrant children, or demand the FBI comport itself as his personal detective agency. But to stand beside an avowed opponent of U.S. hegemony — and apologize for America?
“Disgusting,” declared Fox Business anchor Neil Cavuto. “The most serious mistake of his presidency,” Newt Gingrich declared. The Senate’s nominally anti-Trump Republicans turned their empty rhetorical denunciations up to 11. Even die-hard Trumpists like Tom Cotton felt compelled to offer implicit criticism.
For once, conservative elites had certified that mainstream outrage at Trump’s conduct was not, in fact, “fake news.” This raised the possibility that the president’s bizarre performance in Helsinki might actually change public opinion, and with it, the terrain of the battle for House control. As RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende noted, if Trump’s approval dipped back below 40 percent — where it had been through much of the fall — precedent would predict a Democratic “wave” this November.
But that doesn’t appear to be happening. Trump’s job approval has not dropped significantly in the first surveys taken since the Helsinki summit. And two polls released Thursday explain why: While a large majority of Democrats and independents disapproved of Trump’s performance, most Republican voters now believe that it’s actually cool and good for an American president to say he trusts a former KGB agent more than the FBI.
An Axios/SurveyMonkey poll finds that 79 percent of Republicans approved of Trump’s handling of the summit, while 91 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of independents disagreed. In total, that puts overall disapproval at 58 percent, and approval at 40.
A CBS News survey, meanwhile, produces largely similar results (for whatever reason, a lot more respondents chose “I don’t know” in the network’s survey than did in Axios’s): 68 percent of Republicans told the network that Trump did a good job in Helsinki, 83 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents said he did a bad one.
These are not good poll numbers. In 2016, Trump scraped together an Electoral College victory on the strength of 80,000 well-placed votes. Since then, his approval rating has plummeted across the Rust Belt. Now, at a time of historically low unemployment, a majority of voters disapprove of Trump’s job performance in the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Ohio. In this context, the fact that the president is retaining most of his base — while alienating most independent voters — is not good news for his reelection prospects.
It is, however, good enough to keep the threat of significant intraparty criticism (let alone, impeachment) at bay. After Trump did three-quarters of an about-face on Putin — claiming, absurdly, that he had intended to say the opposite of what he’d actually said about Russian involvement in the 2016 election — Republican lawmakers rallied back to his side. And, thanks to Republican gerrymandering, and the higher turnout rates of the elderly, if Trump can keep his approval rating above 40 percent, he just might keep the House in GOP hands.
For the moment, it doesn’t look like Helsinki was any kind of “turning point.” Trump was about as historically unpopular before the summit, as he is now, days after. In the short term, the vast disparity between how Republican voters see the world — and how the rest of the electorate does — might qualify as good news for GOP incumbents. In the long run, it won’t be.