War won’t save Donald Trump’s ratings

Donald Trump hates that you hate him.

Just 12 weeks after moving into the White House, Trump has the lowest approval rating of any commander-in-chief at this point in his presidency. Just 38 percent of Americans give a thumbs up to President Trump, according to recent Gallup numbers, while 57 percent feel that his performance has been unsatisfactory. This is a stark contrast to eight years ago—when Obama’s approval rating hovered above 60 percent during his first few months in the White House.

It’s only likely to get worse from here. Americans are typically high on incoming Oval Office holders during the presidential honeymoon period. Bill Clinton, who began his first term with a 58 percent approval rating, dropped below 40 percent by June. It’ll take some time before Trump reaches Harry Truman levels, but he’s well on his way.

What do you do when you’re on track to be the least liked president in history? You start a war.

On Thursday evening, the POTUS authorized a missile attack on a government airbase in Syria, responding to a chemical weapons attack waged by Bashar al-Assad’s regime earlier in the week, one that killed dozens of civilians, including children. This is a major about face from the platform Trump preached prior to taking office; he ran on a non-interventionist, isolationist policy to separate himself from the constant conflict of the previous two administrations.

“We will stop racing to topple foreign regimes we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with,” Trump said in November.

The president’s flip-flop shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who is an avid reader of Trump’s Twitter account. Trump, who was highly critical of Obama’s involvement in Syria, tweeted in October 2012 that Obama was “desperate” to salvage his plummeting popularity, which had fallen to around 50 percent. (Mind you, these are better numbers than Trump has ever posted.)

“Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin,” Trump wrote, “watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran.”

But if the former reality star hopes to rejuvenate his ratings with a Sweeps Week stunt, it won’t work. Yes, military interventions do provide a short-term popularity boost—akin to a quick shot of adrenaline in the arm—but these fade. Going to war won’t make you beloved; in fact, it’s more likely to have the opposite effect.

The theory that Americans are more likely to support the commander-in-chief during wartime is known as the “Rally ‘Round the Flag” effect. John Mueller, a political scientist and professor at Ohio State University, first noted the correlation between presidential popularity and war in a 1973 treatise. A good example of the trend is the presidency of George W. Bush, whose poll numbers soared to 90 percent in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, as American banded together during a moment of patriotic fervor.

Bush’s post-9/11 approval rating remains a record high for any president, and there’s no doubt that Trump—who is obsessed with polls—aspires to those numbers. His longtime friend, Howard Stern, commented during a February broadcast of his SiriusXM radio show that the POTUS “wants to be liked.”

“He wants to be loved,” Stern said. “He wants people to cheer for him. I don’t think this is going to be a healthy experience for him.

Frank Bruni, a columnist for the New York Times, argued the same in a November op-ed—that Trump’s “hunger to be loved” could lead him to do dangerous, destructive things (e.g., bomb Syria). When Saturday Night Live mocks him, Trump launches on a 3am tweetstorm attacking Alec Baldwin, whose impression of the president appears to have gotten under his famously thin skin. The president’s ego has defined Trump’s tenure—whether it’s starting a feud with the cast of Hamilton for criticizing Vice President Mike Pence or questioning the legitimacy of Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote win.

War, though, won’t be the answer to Trump’s prayers. The popular idea that armed conflicts save presidencies is a total misreading of what Mueller actually argued—which is that approval of wartime presidents decreases in the long term as the reality of the conflict sets in.

Let’s use President Bush as an example. Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush’s numbers sat at 51 percent, his lowest numbers since taking office. Within a week, his popularity had ticked up 35 points before reaching its eventual peak. After announcing in March 2013 that the U.S. would be going to war in Iraq, his approval ratings again got a 13 percent jolt—rising from 58 percent to 71 percent.

But that didn’t last long: Bush’s numbers steadily fell throughout his two terms in the White House, as Americans found themselves in a costly, never-ending conflict. Bush went from the most popular president ever to one of the least; he left the White House in 2009 supported by 34 percent of the public.

Truman, the most unpopular president in modern history, discovered the same. As alluded to above, FDR’s successor hit a basement in February 1952 as he neared the end of his presidency. Reflecting the popular disdain a bloody war in Korea that dragged on into the Eisenhower presidency, just 22 percent of Americans approved of the job Truman had done in the Oval Office.

This is a man who, if the “Rally ‘Round the Flag” myth were true, should have been wildly popular. Truman had both World War II and Korea to his name.

Intervention in Southeast Asia wasn’t kind to Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson or Richard Nixon, either. Nixon, who also had to contend with the fallout over Watergate, checked out of Washington, D.C., with 24 percent approval, while Johnson hadn’t climbed over 50 percent in almost two years when he left office.

Even the wars that go well aren’t enough to curry public favor for more than a matter of months. Following the conclusion of the Gulf War in 1991—an efficient tactical offensive launched in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait—President George H.W. Bush’s popularity was through the roof. Eighty-nine percent of Americans gave him high marks. That surge didn’t survive the year: By December, Bush’s ratings were tanked by a lethargic economy, falling back to where they were at the start of his presidency (51 percent).

The Gulf War didn’t do much to sway voters in the 1992 election, either. The 41st president was roundly beaten by challenger Bill Clinton, who won by more than 200 Electoral College votes.

If President Trump wants to help his pathetic poll numbers, there’s a much easier way than dumping $54 billion in increased defense spending just to satisfy his ego: He should resign. Gallup data shows that presidents become more popular after they leave office. Even George W. Bush, once maligned as one of the worst presidents in history, has benefitted from a wave of nostalgia. In a 2016 poll, 52 percent of Americans approved of his job as president.

Trump, who desperately wishes to be treated like America’s Prom King, might be perturbed that the public doesn’t like him now. But if he keeps bombing other countries just because of what he saw on TV, Trump hasn’t seen anything yet.

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.