One of the more remarkable things about Donald Trump's first 100 days as president is how comfortable his supporters are with what he has done. An ABC News/Washington Post poll published Sunday found that 96% of people who voted for Trump in November still believe it was "the right thing to do." Only 2% regret it.
This remains the case after what seems — by most standards — to have been a disastrous and embarrassing first three months. Trump's failures have been legion. His vows to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act went up in flames after Republicans couldn't agree on the terms of the replacement, even though they'd had seven years to do so. His promises to "drain the swamp" of Washington insiders and special interests have deflated beneath his cabinet of far-right politicians and corporate billionaires.
Trump's staff has been roiled by evidence that members colluded with the Russian government to sway the election. His attempts to ban Muslim immigration to the U.S. have been blocked by federal judges. More people marched to protest his election than attended his inauguration. His military actions have shown little evidence of a coherent foreign policy vision, amounting to superficial shows of "strength" that claimed the lives of at least 20 civilians and one Navy SEAL.
But we'd be mistaken to judge Trump by these metrics if we want to understand his success. To get why Trump's supporters care so little about his fumbles, it's important to understand what they value. The evidence tells a clear story. The New York Times general election exit polls published in November identified the two areas Trump voters said were especially important to them: immigration and terrorism. In these areas, the president has delivered exactly what he promised: an aggressive and often performative crackdown on ethnic minorities aimed at punishing their existence and reminding them that they are not welcome in the United States.
At the behest of his majority-white support base, Trump has used his first 100 days to scapegoat Muslims and Latin-American immigrants as unique national security threats. He has marked them for mass detainment, arrest and deportation. He has done so via several executive orders that blocked immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, accelerated roundups of undocumented immigrants and a renewed (though currently stalled) push for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico — exactly like he said he'd do.
This is all consistent with the mood of Trump's campaign. His fear-mongering toward Muslims and undocumented people drew accolades from his base, who, according to various polls and surveys, showed a strong inclination toward bigotry. It will likely matter little to them that Trump's legislative efforts keep getting thwarted. What's important is that he stays the course — that he keeps reminding them who their enemies are, and that he won't stop applying pressure to them, no matter what.
And therein lies the formula for Trump's 2020 re-election. Job growth will play a role, too, as enthusiasm from business owners reflects the promise of tax cuts and deregulation that defines most Republican administrations. Employment will probably keep rising — as it did under former President Barack Obama — providing a possible boost to Trump's record-low approval ratings. But it's worth remembering that the economy was a tertiary concern for Trump voters. The idea that economic frustration paved the way for his victory in November is largely overblown. White voters who fear diversity formed the bulk of Trump's base. Until we come to terms with that, we are operating under a delusion.
In this light, the most valuable takeaway from Trump's first 100 days in office is that they are a likely preview of what's to come. We can probably expect more crackdowns and criminalization, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Terrorism and undocumented immigration will make repeat appearances as villains. But Trump's main imprint so far is that he has exposed the U.S. as a country steadfast in its myriad cruelties toward non-whites, rather than one that atones for its mistakes and works toward a more equitable future. He's done so while his gleeful supporters egged him on. And the people of color he's targeted continue to pay the heaviest price.