We hear all the time about Donald Trump’s “base”: that hard core of fervent supporters who see Trump as some kind of Second Coming, America’s savior who can do practically no wrong. We know that Trump is continually motivated by a felt need to satisfy his base’s expectations. And, it is widely and reasonably assumed that the subservience that Congressional Republicans show toward their president reflects in good part the readiness of Trump’s base to vote in primary elections to punish any Republican who fails to demonstrate sufficient fealty to the chief. So, Trump’s base is an important part of our political landscape, but I haven’t seen any serious attempt to estimate its size. I think we should try. Since it is fair to assume that Trump’s base followers largely share his xenophobia, racism and proto-authoritarian disdain for democratic norms, the size of his base tells us something not only about Trump’s political strength, but more broadly about what kind of country we live in.
The generally astute Frank Rich recently made the unsupported assertion that Trump’s base amounts to about one-third of Americans. If correct, this would be very disheartening: can it be that fully a third of our fellow citizens practically worship this odious demagogue? But I don’t think that figure is correct. Trump’s approval ratings in the various public opinion polls are currently averaging 39%. That’s an historic low for this point in a presidency; people are generally inclined to give a new president the benefit of the doubt. But because they are so inclined, we can be pretty sure that the number of people who say they approve of the president’s performance very considerably exceeds the number who are enthusiastically supportive. Rich assumes that 85% of Trump “approvers” can be considered his base. That seems very unlikely to me.
Let’s look at some other numbers. One reputable poll asks respondents to grade the president on a scale of A to F. Here is Trump’s latest report card:
This poll tells you something about Trump’s re-election prospects: the 46% of Americans who give him a D or an F are unlikely to change their views sufficiently to vote for him, so Trump to win in 2020 needs to win the overwhelming majority of voters who give him a mediocre C. That seems possible, but long-shot. But I digress, since the task at hand is to estimate the size of Trump’s base. I think you will agree that it is very unlikely that many people in his base would give him anything less than an A. After all, a B is a decent grade, but hardly walk on water. So, it would seem that Trump’s true base couldn’t be much higher than 18%.
Another poll that is usefully more revealing than the generic approve/disapprove query is one that asks respondents about Trump’s tweets. Are they appropriate, or not appropriate? Fifty-nine per cent of Americans say Trump’s use of Twitter is inappropriate. Twenty-six per cent say it is appropriate, and the rest are unsure. How do we interpret this result? The tweet, of course, is Trump’s great innovative contribution to presidential communication. It is the emotional lifeline of his connection with his base, enabling him to bypass the “fake media.” It is hard to imagine that there would be many people in Trump’s base who would have any doubts about the appropriateness of his tweeting, but let’s assume that a few such people exist. On the other hand, there undoubtedly are some non-base voters who think that Trump’s tweeting is a worthwhile effort at communication, and therefore appropriate. The best we can do is make problematic assumptions, of course, but I would guess that the two categories—base followers who have their doubts about the tweets and non-base people who approve—are about equal in numbers, and so wash each other out. That would put Trump’s base at an estimated 26% of Americans.
My guesstimate, then, is that Trump’s base constitutes somewhere between the 18% who give him an A and the 26% who deem his tweets appropriate. Let’s round that to 20-25%. You can evaluate this range according to your taste. You might be horrified that as many as 25% of Americans give Trump their unswerving loyalty, or you can consider it encouraging that such people amount to no more than a quarter of the country. (Is the glass a quarter full or three-quarters empty?) Note in any case that the 20-25% is distributed very unevenly by geography, with a heavy concentration of Trumpites in the South.
However you view the size of Trump’s base, it is certainly large enough to explain his stranglehold on the GOP. Currently about 37% of voters identify as Republican or Republican-leaning. Since most Trump base followers are presumably Republican, it is clear that they constitute a solid if not overwhelming majority of most Republican primary election voters. So the base, limited as it is in the larger scheme of things, is a dominant force in GOP politics. If you are a Republican office holder and you seriously cross Trump, there is a good chance that you will be primaried and that you will lose. There are very few politicians, regardless of party, who are inclined to sacrifice their political careers for principle. (Arizona’s Sen. Flake is an admirable exception.) We can expect the GOP to continue to be the POT (party of Trump) for the foreseeable future, with few questions asked.