Trump benefits more from peace than conflict

Published 6:25 pm Sunday, June 24, 2018

President Donald Trump’s approval ratings have been climbing since the prospect of a summit with North Korea was announced earlier this year in March. 

In fact, he has reached a 48 percent approval rating mark on June 20, 2018 in the Rasmussen Reports poll.  And it’s no accident.  The Republican President has benefited from a little-known lesson that escapes many pundits and some professors: people typically respond better to peace than they do towards threats and uses of force.

Remember Nixon winning reelection overwhelmingly in 1972, shortly after Henry Kissinger announced “Peace is at hand” during talks with North Vietnam?  Or do you recall the joyous celebrations after V-E Day and V-J Day? Sure, President George H. W. Bush’s approval ratings spiked in 1991, but that was after the U.S. military won a successful fight in the Persian Gulf War, and the conflict was over with so few casualties.

That hasn’t stopped some academics from arguing that there is a diversionary theory of war, where leaders with domestic troubles launch a conflict abroad to distract from those shortcomings. The media picked up on it after the 1990s movie “Wag the Dog,” thus giving it the moniker “Wag The Dog Hypothesis.”  

This theory is trotted out every time some U.S. President or British Prime Minister launches an attack, even though a few scholars have pointed out there’s there’s little evidence for it when it comes to war. Few have considered that maybe peace might bring more happiness at home.  But Trump has certainly benefited from his olive branch to North Korea.

Before March 5, 2018, Trump’s approval ratings averaged 40.25 percent in several polls before that date. As plans for some sort of summit were announced, a Marist poll showed Trump jumping up in the public eye to 44 percent. Subsequent polling averages regressed to the mean, but still reflected a Trump bump. Now, that polling average is 43.1 percent, with Rasmussen Reports showing higher numbers for Trump.

Contrast this with Trump’s earlier interactions with North Korea. Before his famous “Fire and Fury” message, Trump’s poll average was 37.7 percent. The three day poll average after that threat was 36.7 percent. It was a similar story when Trump bragged about his button being bigger on Jan. 2, 2018, as he experienced a drop in averages from 41.3 percent to 39.7 percent.

Think either of Trump’s cruise missile launches against Syria netted him any public approval?  Think again. The President’s poll averages fell from 40.7 percent to 40 percent after that April 6-7, 2017 launch. Those average surveys stayed flat before and after Trump’s second set of cruise missile launches in response to a second set of Syrian chemical attacks.

It’s not just Trump who has experienced a surge in surveys after peace. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton launched cruise missiles or ordered bombers to attack sites, ranging from the former Yugoslavia (in Bosnia and Kosovo), Iraq, and against al-Qaeda (in Sudan and Afghanistan).  But only in the Christmastime attacks on Saddam Hussein’s facilities did Clinton get a bounce in the polls. The other three military operations resulted in a poll drop or flat results for the Democratic President.  

On the other hand, three of the four peace initiatives (Bosnia, Kosovo, North Ireland, and Israel-Palestine) resulted in positive public opinion.  The Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 netted Clinton a critical 4.5 increase in the polls, from 47 percent to 52 percent, critical to the president’s reelection efforts. And the first poll taken after Clinton’s famous scene with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat in September of 1993 saw a 10 point boost for Clinton, as well as a 7.5 point average increase that month.

If Trump is looking towards his reelection, he would do well to remember such lessons from history, as well as his own administration. Americans love their military, but they also enjoy the policy of peace as well.