What are we to make of precise poll data that reflect nothing short of confusion and contention? Are the polls confused, or is it simply that the interpreters of those public-sentiment gauges are confused? Do these polls reflect, or contribute to, our sorry state?
Whatever the answers, the curious fact remains that the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows two seemingly contradictory upticks — one for the Democrats' prospects in November's midterm congressional elections, and one for President Donald J. Trump's approval.
Maybe all the contradictions we see in our politics are the zeitgeist of the era. This is, after all, a time when the Republicans are the populists (and, on the issue of Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs, the unlikely allies of the labor unions) and the Democrats are the elitists (and the party most appealing to many of the plutocrats who occupy the commanding heights of the most vibrant parts of the economy).
Indeed, the most profound change may be among the Republicans. Not so long ago, Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Democrat from Ohio, was quoted as saying that "the Republican establishment has captured the government." He added, "When it comes to what they're really trying to do every day, it's the bidding of the billionaire Republican establishment — of Wall Street, of the drug companies, of the gun lobby."
Not so fast. Maybe the drug companies, maybe the gun lobby, but surely not the Republican establishment. It is aghast at what the Trump administration is doing, especially on trade. Perhaps the only group as disenchanted as Brown is with the Trump administration, and with Trump himself, may be the Republican establishment. Its members are watching their power eroding in slow motion, and if Trump wins a second term, historians may date the end of the modern Republican Party to his nomination in Cleveland nearly two years ago.
The one lesson of American history is that the past is always changing, the settled is always being revised and the reviled are sometimes being rehabilitated.
In "The Hidden-Hand Presidency," the Princeton scholar Fred I. Greenstein wrote this consensus-shattering passage about the Constitution, so often regarded with hushed reverence:
"One of the most profound sources of discontent with the performance of presidents was built into the job of chief executive in 1787 by the framers of the Constitution. The American president is asked to perform two roles that in most democracies are assigned to separate individuals. He must serve both as chief of state and as the nation's highest political executive. The roles seem almost designed to collide."
Greenstein argued that as the head of the executive branch, the president, like a British prime minister, has "intrinsically divisive responsibilities," with the attendant risk of forfeiting "his broad acceptance as leader of the entire nation." But as chief of state, the president, like constitutional monarchs, "is a symbol of unity," a figure "expected by Americans to represent the entire nation."
It is in that latter role that Trump is least comfortable; and as a "symbol of unity," he provides the least comfort to the nation, even to many Republicans whose loyalty to party and the presidency has been, until now, unquestioned.
"For the most part, the presidency changes the president into a better man," said Craig Shirley, a veteran of several GOP presidential campaigns and the author of four volumes on Ronald Reagan. "When presidents assume office, they often assume a new humility and faith."
The principal example, as of so much of the presidency, is Abraham Lincoln, who said the only answers he could find were in devout contemplation. "I have been driven many times upon by knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go," he said. "My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient."
Much of this is enough to make us rethink the conventional view of the office — at a time when Trump is in (conscious and deliberate) violation of many of the customs of the presidency. He does not, for example, measure his words; they spill into Twitter at all hours. He has no respect for the conventions of the office; where previous presidents (Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon) merely harbored doubts about institutions such as the State Department and FBI, Trump is distrustful of them.
"We like to think there's an act of magic that occurs when someone puts his hand on the Bible for that oath of office," said presidential historian Richard Norton Smith. "We think that at that moment he grows."
Not always. Where John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were works in progress in the White House, Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush and Trump entered the White House as finished products. The current president is unchanging even as he is changing American politics.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.