A year ago, some 63 million Americans elected Donald Trump to serve as the nation’s 45th president. Few anticipated his improbable success when he launched his campaign. Not the media. Not his 16 Republican opponents. And certainly not Hillary Clinton.
In fact, Trump himself likely never saw it coming.
“This is beyond anybody’s expectations,” he said at Trump Tower in June 2015, marveling at the size of the crowd that had come to watch him kick off his candidacy.
On that unassuming day, Trump laid out exactly what America could expect from him as its president, both in style and substance. As it turns out, he’s given people exactly what he promised – with one glaring exception.
And it’s this exception that may cost him the White House.
When Trump announced his run, he explained that America required two things of its president and politicians. The first was good leadership, which Trump defined as smart people who simply got stuff done.
The second was inspiration. “We need a cheerleader,” he explained. “We need somebody that can take the brand of the United States and make it great again.”
He fundamentally believed that he couldn’t make America great again by just passing better laws or fairer trade deals. Instead, the country needed to feel great again, too.
By Trump’s telling, America had neither inspiration nor good leadership.
The politicians? Corrupt and ineffective. “They’re controlled fully by the lobbyists, by the donors, and by the special interests,” he proclaimed.
And their policies? Ruinous. Trump took special aim at unfair trade deals, especially those with China, Mexico, and Japan.
“They come in, they take our jobs, they take our money… and then they loan us back the money, and we pay them in interest,” Trump explained in disbelief.
“How stupid are our leaders? How stupid are these politicians to allow this to happen?”
Trump targeted the usual suspects of failed leadership – Obama and Clinton – but also added Republicans, too, such as former President Bush and opponents like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
He promised to be different.
“We need a truly great leader now. We need a leader that wrote 'The Art of the Deal.'”
Trump’s self-promotion underlined his belief in the second key requirement for successful presidents – inspiration.
His “improvement of the brand” may have sounded different than normal politician-speak – more calculated, less lofty – but arguably was of the same cloth. He fundamentally believed that he couldn’t make America great again by just passing better laws or fairer trade deals. Instead, the country needed to feel great again, too.
America needed a Cheerleader-in-Chief.
To demonstrate how important this was to Trump, he held up Obama as a cautionary tale. The president explained that Obama was – when first elected – a “vibrant” man who possessed a “great spirit” that the country needed.
But, he warned, that vibrant spirit eventually became a “negative force” that divided the nation.
Fast forward from Trump’s campaign launch to the completion of his first year in office.
How’s he doing?
Polls show that Americans are deeply divided on whether Trump’s leadership is making America great again. Domestically, supporters point to a strong economy, robust stock market, and efforts to remake bad trade deals. He’s also tried to dump ObamaCare, change immigration policies, and re-write the tax code (with mixed results).
On foreign matters, supporters highlight a more aggressive stance against Iran, North Korea, and ISIS. He’s also pulled out of the Paris climate accord that was opposed by many of his supporters.
Perhaps most critically, his election managed to blow up the lives of career politicians – Republicans and Democrats alike – along with their corrupt parties.
In short, it’s hard to argue that Trump isn’t delivering on his definition of presidential leadership, especially the face of deeply critical media coverage.
But Trump’s leadership is only half of what he claimed would make a successful president. What of his ability to inspire America to feel great again?
Is Trump the Cheerleader-in-Chief the nation needed?
Polling from Fox News suggests not. Even supportive Republicans find his public behavior – the Twitter fights, bragging, and truth-stretching – to be unhelpful or even distasteful. Additional polling from GOP-friendly Rasmussen Reports also shows that the country still believes it’s on the wrong track a year after Trump’s election.
But forget polling. Criticism of Trump’s personality is not new, even to Trump himself. He knows that his brash style is his Achilles’ heel. In fact, he said as much when he launched his campaign in 2015.
“You’re not a nice person,” Trump said, quoting a reporter who described him. “How can you get people to vote for you?”
His response to the criticism was telling.
“This is going to be an election that’s based on competence, because people are tired of these ‘nice’ people [politicians]. And they’re tired of being ripped off by everybody in the world.”
In other words, Trump knew that people might not like him. Still, he gambled that Americans would ultimately tolerate an ill-tempered New Yorker so long as he could browbeat the dysfunctional House and Senate into fixing America’s brokenness.
His gamble paid off. He won the presidency.
A year later, the question is whether he can keep it.
What Trump’s gamble failed to consider is that while voters might be willing to stomach his sharp-elbowed style, the Senators and Representatives he needs to advance his MAGA agenda are not. It’s no surprise, then, that Democrats (and restive Republicans) are clamoring for a way to bring Trump down.
The main avenue to do so appears to be encouraging Robert Mueller’s investigation into the alleged collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Others cling to the increasingly dubious “Russian dossier” of tawdry (and largely discredited, unproven, and partisan) allegations.
But the truth is that Trump-haters don’t need Mueller or the Russian dossier. They simply need to prevent Trump from advancing his agenda – demonstrating his promised competence to the American people – all while baiting him into the next distasteful Twitter fight.
They’re molding him as the next Obama.
They’re making him the very negative force he campaigned against.
Fresh polling shows that this dynamic is already happening, and at a shocking rate. The American people – Democrats and Independents in particular – disapprove of Trump at levels unseen in some 70 years.
The trajectory of Trump’s presidency is becoming clear. If Trump remains deeply unpopular, Democrats may win back the House and Senate in 2018 (though polling shows trouble for them too). Should progressives win, the dam holding back charges of impeachment will likely burst.
Whether Trump actually colluded with Russia or not will be politically irrelevant (even if legally and morally paramount) when Nancy Pelosi’s party takes over. After all, impeachment is a vote of politics, not of legal guilt or innocence.
Even if Trump isn’t impeached, Americans will still be exhausted by four years of D.C. drama. It’s hard to see how Trump and fellow Republicans escape ownership of that turmoil.
Our 45th leader is thus at a crossroads. If he wants to survive until January of 2020 (and beyond), he must chart a course back to June of 2015. It was at that year’s campaign launch where he correctly explained that a successful presidency is both parts competence and inspiration.
The sharp elbows and Twitter fights may have helped him reach the Oval Office but it is not what will keep him there. That will take a notable transition into a more credible Cheerleader-in-Chief. Fundamentally, that means turning off the self-promotion and Twitter account and turning on what President Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
Humility. Gratitude. Forgiveness.
Can Trump find his better angels? Time will tell, of course. But one thing’s clear.
Sixty-three million Americans put their faith in a man to change the course of the nation. Their vote demands that he try.