Remember back when Donald Trump was just getting elected and people worried about "normalizing" him and the "extinction-level threat" he posed not just to the United States but the whole of Western civilization? The rude and often disgusting ways he vilified people (especially women), his proud ignorance of basic elements of American governance and policymaking, his calls for violence against hecklers at his rallies—all this and more marked Trump as a break with recent precedent.
Two years into his presidency and about 46 percent of Americans have indeed normalized Trump. That's where his approval rating has settled in a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Over at RealClearPolitics, which averages a bunch of different polls, his approval rating is currently 44 percent. Over the past six months, it's been mostly bouncing around in the low- to mid-40s as well. This represents progress for Trump, who was stuck in the 30s for most of the second half of 2017. About 40 percent of respondents said they will vote for him in 2020. That doesn't sound good, but it's about where Bill Clinton was at the same point in his presidency.
So what happened? Lots of stuff, including first and foremost the simple fact that the world hasn't ended yet on his watch. The economy is still growing, albeit weakly in comparison both to what Trump promised and the postwar historical average. Just one in three of us think there will be a recession in the next year, according to that NBC/WSJ poll. A year ago, 64 percent of us figured a crash was coming. Unemployment is low and wages are growing. He was instrumental in passing a major tax bill, he supported criminal justice reform, and he signed "right to try" legislation. He's talking about pulling out of wars that long ago lost public support. (For an official White House list of accomplishments, go here.) Perhaps more of us are starting to realize that "Trump Is More Like Recent Presidents than Anyone Wants To Admit" (that's not a compliment, by the way, it's just reality) and also that American cultural and political institutions are capable of hemming in his worst tendencies. He lost the showdown over the government shutdown. The Democrats winning the House in the midterms might make it easier for people to be at peace with the idea of President Trump. A divided government is one that, at least to some extent, will limit any given party's or person's power.
At the same time, I want to suggest that one of the biggest factors in "normalizing" Trump is the rise of self-proclaimed socialists in the Democratic Party. This was a theme in Trump's Castro-length performance-art masterpiece at Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday, during which he begged the Democrats to run on Green New Deal (GND) policies that would give the government massive new powers not simply in the energy sector but in health care and labor markets too. For a rundown of just how expansive the GND being pushed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) will be, go here. In his State of the Union address, Trump declared that "America will never be a socialist nation" and if the GND isn't textbook socialism, it's close enough for government work. As I noted over the weekend, the agenda and statements of progressive Democrats make Trump seem much more mainstream, as do "comments, however short-lived, by Democrats such as Kamala Harris, who at one point recently called for an end to private health care. And over 100 House Democrats have signed on to a plan that would end private health insurance in two years."
Indeed, for all the talk of the growing popularity of socialism, especially among younger people, over the past couple of years, the fact remains that Americans generally don't like the term or its connotations. The NBC/WSJ poll asked respondents whether they had positive or negative reactions to various people and ideas. When it came to socialism, just 18 percent of people had "very" or "somewhat" positive feelings about socialism, while 50 percent had negative feelings. For capitalism, the percentages were reversed, with 50 percent being positive and 19 percent being negative.
To the extent that the Democrats take on the mantle of socialism or allow Donald Trump to tag them with it, they will not only make him seem more and more mainstream and acceptable, they will almost surely lose the 2020 presidential election.
Related: "California's High-Speed Rail Disaster Is a 'Shot Across the Bow for the Green New Deal'"