Beware The Teflon Don

Yesterday I was interviewed by the WCAX reporter Darren Perron for his weekend show You Can Quote Me, an experience I always enjoy because of Perron’s sharp questions. The interview topic this time around, not surprisingly, was the recent “bombshell” revelation that Donald Trump, Jr. agreed to meet with what he thought was a representative of the Russian government who claimed to have information that could undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Perron wanted to know if, finally, this was the event that would serve as the proverbial “smoking gun” precipitating Trump’s political downfall. My paraphrased answer was, “Probably not.”  In fact, as I explained to Perron, I suspect the latest revelations won’t have much impact on Trump’s public support at all, at least not without additional incriminating detail.

As evidence, I pointed to the failure of any number of previous incidents, ranging from the Comey firing to Trump’s infamous Mika Brzezinski bleeding facelift tweet, to appreciably affect Trump’s popularity, despite being touted at the time as potential tipping points in terms of Trump’s support. Indeed, one of the remarkable and underappreciated facets of Trump’s presidency so far is that despite a historically unprecedented barrage of negative news coverage, his polling numbers have barely budged for more than two months. As Thomas Patterson documents in his study of news coverage by major media markets during Trump’s first 100 days, the tone of Trump’s coverage has been almost uniformly negative; in his words:  “Trump has received unsparing coverage for most weeks of his presidency, without a single major topic where Trump’s coverage, on balance, was more positive than negative, setting a new standard for unfavorable press coverage of a president.”  Indeed, as this accompanying chart from the Report indicates, Trump’s negative coverage is unprecedented compared to that received by his immediate predecessors.

There’s no evidence of which I know suggesting coverage has gotten any more favorable since the study was concluded. Mind you I make no judgement here on whether the predominantly negative tone of Trump’s coverage is warranted. But deserved or not, it seems not to be having much of an impact on Trump’s popular approval, at least not since late March, when opinions toward Trump seem to have settled in after a very brief and not very favorable honeymoon. According to the Huffpost aggregate poll, on March 27 Trump dipped to his lowest approval rating to that point, with only 40.7% saying they approved of the job he was doing.  Today, two and a half months later, Trump’s approval number stands at – drum roll please! – exactly 40.7%.  In the interim between March 27 and today it fell as low as 39.6% and rose no higher than 43.7% in aggregate polling.  In short despite the steady stream of media accounts breathlessly “Trumpeting” variations on the theme of  “White House in crisis”, “Embattled Presidency”, etc., Trump’s public standing, at least measured by polls, seems remarkably impervious to the overheated media coverage.

So why would the Trump, Jr. story be any different?  One answer is that it reveals, for the first time, concrete evidence that a member of Trump’s campaign team actively solicited information from the Russian government intended to undermine the Clinton campaign.  Despite Trump Jr.’s insistence that this was standard opposition research, most campaign veterans will tell you that opposition research doesn’t typically involve secret meetings with foreign governments. Nor is it normally conducted by the candidate’s offspring – far better to keep this type of activity as far from the candidate as possible.  Indeed, after prodding by Senator Lindsay Graham, Christopher Wray, Trump’s nominee to head the FBI, told the members of the Judiciary Committee that, “[A]ny threat or effort to interfere with our elections from any nation state or any nonstate actor is the kind of thing the FBI would want to know.”  That statement from Trump’s own nominee seemed to undercut the President’s defense that this meeting was par for the course when it comes to campaigns.

So this story seems to be different in kind from the previous stories alleging some type of collusion between Trump and the Russians.  At least superficially, it seems to provide the long-sought after smoking gun that proves collusion. Or does it?  As I told Perron, despite the effort of the Times to make the case that it was not a coincidence that public statements by Trump, Sr. on the campaign trail regarding Clinton’s emails followed closely on the heels of his son’s meeting with the Russian lawyer, it is still not clear that anything of value was transmitted to Trump, Jr., or that the meeting had any impact on the campaign at all.  So once again we are left with rampant speculation, but no concrete evidence regarding actual collaboration between Trump and the Russians during the 2016 election.  Yes, Trump, Jr., might have violated campaign norms, but does the meeting conclusively show collaboration between the Russians and the Trump campaign that influenced the election? And how, if at all, does this meeting link to the President?  There’s still a lot we don’t know.

If I am right that, in the absence of additional information documenting actual collusion, the latest “bombshell” will likely be met with a collective political shrug by Trump supporters, the question is why?  Why are Trump supporters seemingly unconcerned with what my Twitter feed and email inbox assure me are actions that are almost certainly going to lead to the destruction of the nation, or of Trump’s presidency, or both?

One explanation, often touted by Trump’s critics, is that his supporters are a bunch of no-nothing dupes who are blind to any evidence contradicting their racist, xenophobic, narrow-minded world view.  To a certain degree, hyperbole aside, we are all subject to confirmation bias, although it seems particularly pronounced among strong partisans. So this is probably part of the explanation.  Nonetheless, as I’ve discussed in other posts, in talking extensively with Trump supporters during the campaign I found them quite knowledgeable about current events and quite willing to criticize Trump when they thought the criticism warranted.

Another explanation, offered by the New York Times, is that conservatives are not alarmed by Trump colluding with the Russians because they actually admire Vladimir Putin, the Russian allegedly behind the effort to throw the 2016 election to Trump. As the Times puts it: “The veneration of Mr. Putin helps explain why revelations about Russia’s involvement in the election — including recent reports that members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle set up a meeting at which they expected a representative of the Russian government to give them incriminating information about Hillary Clinton — and Mr. Trump’s reluctance to acknowledge it, have barely penetrated the consciousness of the president’s conservative base.”

Again, that may be part of the explanation. However, I suspect there’s another, more important reason to explain why  stories alleging collusion aren’t having the expected impact – one that media outlets such as the Times may be reluctant to acknowledge: most Trump supporters don’t think the allegations of collusion have been proven.  And they don’t trust the media to report this story accurately.  As evidence, note that a recent Pew survey shows a whopping 85% of Republicans believe the national news media has a negative effect on the country.  (Democrats don’t view the press very positively either, for what it is worth.)

I suspect that mistrust is fueled in part by a suspicion among Trump supporters that, given the overwhelmingly negative tone of the coverage documented by Patterson, the major news outlets must have a hidden agenda – one designed to portray the Trump administration in the most negative light possible. Editorials such as the one issued by the Times that claimed a link between Sarah Palin’s PAC ads and the shooting of Representative Gabby Gifford (a claim since retracted), only fuel this suspicion.  So, in the absence of conclusive evidence showing collusion, their default position is to mistrust the media coverage.

Again, it bears repeating that it may be the case that the negative coverage of Trump to date simply reflects the fact that Trump’s presidency has been unusually controversial and even ineffective, at least compared to his predecessors, and so the overwhelmingly negative tone is perfectly appropriate.  My sense from talking to Trump supporters, however, is that they think this coverage is motivated instead by the media’s ideological agenda, rather than any dispassionate coverage of events. Thus, absent clear evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians, they remain skeptical that there’s as much to the story as the pervasive media coverage would have one believe.  Moreover, most of them would prefer that the media focus on more important issues that concern them, such as jobs, health care, tax reform, and the economy.  Instead they get a steady diet of stories based on unnamed sources alleging potential conspiracies between Trump and the Russians.  It’s not surprising, then, that these stories, so far at least, haven’t seemed to gain much traction among Trump supporters.  I suspect the latest twist in this ongoing saga will be no different – Trump supporters will view the allegations with their customary skepticism.  But time (and additional evidence) will tell…

In the meantime, perhaps we should not be surprised by the stability in Trump’s approval ratings. We saw a similar dynamic during Obama’s presidency. After the end of his post-election honeymoon, one that was much more favorable and long-lived than Trump’s anemic first few months, Obama’s approval got stuck in a very narrow band between about 44% approval and 52% disapproval, (with a brief positive second honeymoon after his 2012 reelection) for most of his presidency, until the 2016 presidential campaigned elevated him to “elder statesmen” status and his approval ticked up to finish at a robust 56.1% – a level undoubtedly driven by how well he stacked up in public perception compared to the two presidential candidates!

This is reminder that in this era of ideologically distinct and well-sorted parties, presidential approval ratings seems to be governed primarily by partisan dispositions, and barring an unusual event of national significance, once opinions have been baked in we aren’t going to see much fluctuation. Hence, for all the talk about how Trump’s presidency isn’t normal, when it comes to popularity, it seems very normal indeed.  And we shouldn’t be surprised.

Just call him the Teflon Don.  And if Don, Jr. somehow gets run over by the media, beware the barrel of acid.

 

46 comments

  1. Trump’s approval ratings may be “stable,” but at an historically low level. Which suggests that they are, in fact, registering widespread dismay at what a terrible president he is. The fact that people saw this right away, instead of taking months or years and various big disasters before noticing, does not suggest that his support (outside of the cultists) is very robust.

    Also, of course the latest Russia revelations have not registered in opinion polls. They were just last weekend! It takes time for things to sink in, especially when we’re talking about an administration that generates unfavorable headlines by the metric ton on all sorts of issues. Give it a little time. The special prosecutor has still been getting staffed up; we’re not even at the grand-jury stage (and the leaks-from-the-grand-jury stage) yet. Watergate took a year even to begin to register in most people’s awareness, and that was with a Democratic Congress going after it fairly aggressively instead of running interference for the administration, as the GOP Congress is doing now. And yet Trump is already at roughly the stage that Nixon was in early ’74. It’s like he’s running through the Watergate script at something like ten times the original speed.

  2. Jeff,

    You are right that Trump’s initial honeymoon period was negatively affected by his and his staff’s initial missteps (travel ban, etc.) However, I suspect that the latest Russia collusion revelation won’t have much impact on Trump’s approval ratings at all, largely because his support at this point is comprised of individuals who fundamentally don’t believe the collusion stories are a) proven and b) nearly as important as the media and Trumps’ critics make them out to be. But we shall see….

  3. I tend to agree with everything here. The big (and unanswerable) question though is what happens if there is a “smoking gun”? A tape or evidence given by multiple people now in his circle. Does he follow the Nixon pattern of approval ratings dropping into the 20s or in this environment with people very strongly identifying with their parties does he stick in the mid-high thirties?

  4. OK, but I’m not sure that this is telling us much. It is circular to say that people who reject negative news about Trump will not react negatively to negative news about Trump. Obviously, no, they won’t. But this is nothing new. Every president has a hard-core base that he can’t lose no matter what he does. Even Nixon still had approval ratings in the mid-20s on the day he resigned, just ahead of impeachment, conviction, and then likely prosecution and imprisonment (if he hadn’t been pardoned). I’m guessing if there had been polling back in those days, Jefferson Davis would have had similar approval ratings on the day they burned Richmond. Hitler probably still had 20 – 25% approval among German voters while stewing in his bunker as the Red Army closed in. That’s about where Trump’s “strong approval” ratings are right now.

    The politically meaningful question is what happens outside of that hard core. Trump is historically unpopular, both overall and with independents. Here is Gallup’s latest analysis:

    http://www.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/214100/things-trump-people-perspective.aspx

    “Trump is performing well below average, worse now than all other newly elected presidents at this point in their first year.”

    I realize you were using “Teflon” kind of loosely, but if he’s only Teflon among his hard core, then he isn’t Teflon. When that term first appeared as a political descriptor, it was in reference to Ronald Reagan, who won 49 states in 1984. On present trends, the only way Trump could ever win 49 states is if America had about 250 states.

  5. Exactly. I suspect that with clear-cut evidence of wrong doing (tapes, direct links between Trump campaign and Russian tampering, etc.), Trump’s core support will dwindle considerably to Nixonian levels. Right now a good chunk of his supporters, however, are viewing the Russian collusion stories as “nothing burgers”.

  6. Jeff,

    I think you’re missing the point. The reason he’s been stable at 40% for more than two months despite the drumbeat of collusion stories is that most of those 40% don’t believe the stories are a) true or b) important or c) both. This despite being constantly told that the latest collusion revelation is the big one that will shift support decidedly against him. It’s not that his supporters uniformly reject all negative stories about him – it’s that they reject, at least so far, the Russian collusion stories. As you point out, Trump’s early policy missteps definitely hurt his support. Russian collusion? Not so much – at least not yet. See, for example:

    https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/07/13/trump-country-russia-scandal/474789001/

  7. I’m reacting to the term “Teflon.” It’s at best an odd term to use about Trump, whose approval ratings, by historical standards, are in the toilet.

    If you’re just saying he’s Teflon only on the Russia matter, OK, but I would think that any longtime observer of the presidency would be aware that issues like that, which don’t affect most Americans in their daily lives, normally have very little effect on presidential approval. The big driver of presidents’ popularity is economic performance, and Trump inherited from Obama a good economy (<5% unemployment) that hasn't had time yet to go south. The other big variable is getting into a quagmire overseas, with American soldiers getting shipped back in body bags from some godforsaken jungle or desert. Trump may still manage that in Syria or elsewhere, but for the moment, again, he's freeriding on Obama's efforts to dial down the Bush era's wars.

    Compared to those two big issues, i.e. peace and prosperity, "colluding with a foreign power" is an abstraction, especially when it hasn't been proven yet, with the only hard evidence emerging just a few days ago. Watergate, likewise, took a long time to hurt Nixon, because people mostly don't care about "Presidential Campaign Activities" (the official subject of the Senate Watergate Committee). They care about whether they and the people they know can get jobs, and whether their kids or their neighbors' are in danger of getting killed. Trump started out at historically low approval levels because he's a bad and hopelessly unqualified president, and he's stayed close to those same levels because the economy hasn't tanked and he hasn't yet escalated an unwinnable war. While I wish it were otherwise, Russian collusion was bound to be an issue with comparatively little salience.

  8. First, Matthew, that is one of the most level-headed viewpoints I have seen on the Trump subject. So many people are frothing at the mouth because they still can’t believe Hillary didn’t win. They are unwilling to accept that Trump won fair and square by our laws in the Electoral College. That probably galls them even more. And, no, I didn’t vote for him. I voted for Evan McMullen of Utah who got 23% of the votes in Utah. And, no, I’m not a Mormon. Mr. McMullen is simply a very sound guy.

    Short of some huge revelation of true mis-deeds, nothing is going to dislodge Trump’s numbers. And, if he gets moving on his agenda (not the health care debacle that is really the right wing Republican agenda, not Trump’s) around job creation and, etc., his numbers may rise a bit. I guess we’ll see.

    In my view, the true issue today is the vast gulf between the upper class elites and everyone else. The stagnation of wages, the lost jobs to automation (the biggest hit) and globalization; the CEO pay now 300x the average of their workers when it used to be 20x, etc. are all part of why Trump was elected. Lots and lots of very angry people not being helped or understood that decided to ‘blow the place up’ to see if they could get change. So far, it hasn’t work very well because of the huge negative press and media storm around something that doesn’t matter and is in the past. If he doesn’t get it in gear, he will be a one-term president. I think he knows that and so do his many enemies.

    On the BBC Wednesday or Thursday (the only news cast I watch beside NBR) there was a segment on Trump country and the facts are that they don’t give a damn about Washington DC, the media, and etc. They think he is getting a raw deal and have no intention of abandoning the train at this point. If he can get moving on infrastructure and jobs, he’ll win in 2020.

    Here is a billionaire who ‘gets it’.
    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/the-pitchforks-are-coming-for-us-plutocrats-108014#ixzz49K7eu4iT

    (Back on the subject of Middlebury, here is an article on the costs to Mizzou. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/09/us/university-of-missouri-enrollment-protests-fallout.html?_r=0

    I suspect Evergreen College in my state of Washington and Middlebury are going to suffer some of the same fates.)

    Glad to see discussion still happening here. A rational place.

  9. Perhaps throwing a bit more light on this topic, here’s an interesting short commentary from Jonathan Rauch at Brookings, comparing Trump with Nixon head-to-head in terms of job approval:

    https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2017/06/16/impeaching-trump-is-a-heavy-lift/

    Based on the two graphs — overall approval, and approval among Republicans — I believe I overstated how long it took for Watergate to hurt Nixon. It did take a while, but he was at Trump’s low level of overall approval (down from a much higher starting point) about one year in, when the Senate Watergate hearings were getting going and after enough had already leaked from the grand-jury investigation to force out Haldeman and Erlichman, his two top aides. (Rauch’s report, and hence the numbers for Trump, are from a month ago, and obviously there’s been more news on the Russian front since then.)

    And yes, Nixon was less popular by then with GOP voters than Trump was as of last month — roughly, in the 70s where Trump is in the 80s, and still heading downward. So, notwithstanding some signs of further recent erosion among Republican support in the most recent polls, Trump may at least have more Teflon than Nixon did.

    Perhaps the reasons for that “negative partisanship” and the various factors mentioned in the original post above. I go back to what I said about the economy, though. A big difference between the Watergate era and right now is that unemployment is low, the stock market is high and GDP growth has been holding up. In early ’73, GDP growth was in freefall, heading toward recession, and the Dow was undergoing one of the worst bear markets in its history, losing nearly half its value over the course of the year. Give Trump those conditions and his support probably craters too. (It’s an interesting counterfactual whether Nixon might have survived even the worst of Watergate if not for the recession and then the OPEC oil embargo of late ’73. By mid-’74, when he resigned, people had been sitting in gas lines and badly wanted something to change, quite apart from anything that Nixon might be heard saying on any tapes.)

  10. Jeff – You make an important point and useful corrective to my post: I don’t mean to imply that Trump’s approval ratings are completely immune to all the usual suspects that prior research shows influences those ratings. Certainly the economy still matters – as it did for Nixon, and for other presidents. You are right, I think, that Trump’s numbers are buoyed a bit by the continued economic growth (albeit slow and uneven growth!) Indeed, to scare my friends, I have argued that if the economy continues growing, it will be very difficult to defeat a one-term president running for reelection in 2020! (Assuming he’s not removed from office for other matters.) My choice of the word “teflon” was meant primarily in reference to the fact that his approval ratings seem immune to the Russia stories. Also, it allowed me to compare him to a mafia don. 🙂

  11. J. Paul – Glad to have you back on the comments board! You make some excellent points. To begin, I think you are exactly right regarding why Trump won – wage stagnation, lost jobs to globalization, declining social mobility – these are the issues Trump supporters told me concerned them when I talked to them during the 2016 campaign. And it seems clear to me that Trump is in danger of losing their support if his agenda gets hijacked by a conservative Republican party fixated on repealing Obamacare, while infrastructure spending and tax reform and other economic issues are not addressed. But it is quite clear that his supporters don’t care about the Russia story one bit – to them it is simply a rehash of the election, and they want to move on.

    As for the ongoing free speech story – did you see this article? http://time.com/4856225/law-school-free-speech/

  12. Thanks for the further reply. It seems to me we’re still prejudging “the Russia story,” though. Of course it’s had little impact to this point; neither did Watergate at a comparable point. In fact the whole thing was dismissed and belittled in almost exactly the same terms that the Russia story is being dismissed today, except the term of art then was “a third-rate burglary” whereas now it’s “a nothingburger.”

    Eventually, though, as revelation followed revelation, as grand juries got to work, as high officials were forced to resign, etc., Nixon’s position did erode even with Republican voters. Again, see the graph in the Brookings link I posted above. He ended up at about 50% approval with them by the time he resigned. Now, maybe today’s negative partisanship (i.e. hatred for the other party) keeps Trump somewhat higher than that. Even so, if he dropped just from the 80s to the 60s among GOP voters, he’d be in deep trouble, as would the whole party. They’d be looking at wipeouts next year and maybe in 2020.

    And then there’s the possibility that Trump’s floor might actually be lower than Nixon’s, not higher. We don’t know, because there’s never been a president like Trump before. Trump’s overall “strong approval” at this point is only in the low 20s. And he does not have what we might loosely call Nixon’s redeeming features. By ’72 – ’73, Nixon already had major achievements, including the opening to China, a big nuclear-arms treaty with the USSR, and the effective withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam, removing what had been a huge decade-long source of fear and turmoil. Domestically, he had signed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the OSHA Act and a bunch of other stuff. He could credibly present himself as a world statesman, and he had the additional boost that comes from having recently won a big landslide re-election. Trump won a minority victory, and he spends a lot of time golfing and tweeting insults at TV hosts. Whatever his flaws, Nixon was a policy thinker and liked the job of president; Trump obviously hates it, except when it gets him fawning attention. He’s not looking good at this point for any major achievements at all, even with a Republican Congress, in part because his nearly complete ignorance of policy means that he can’t lobby effectively or contribute in the ways that presidents normally do to get deals done.

    But again, a lot depends on events outside his control, or no longer in his control: the economy, and just how bad the Russia thing turns out to be. The way the recent revelations have been tumbling out, it’s hard to believe we’ve already heard all there is to it. But we don’t know yet what else is there for the special prosecutor to find. In Nixon’s case, the sense that his White House had a significant streak of corruption took time to take hold, but it did eventually take hold and it did wear down his ratings. After months and months of that, even some of your co-partisans eventually say, You know, maybe we’d do better with the next guy.

  13. Jeff – It seems to me that you are reiterating the point I made in my initial post: that until there is actual evidence of malfeasance, corruption, election tampering, collusion, etc. – Trump supporters don’t think the revelations regarding Trump and his campaign staff to date are nearly as important as recent media coverage would have them be. Hence the teflon aspect of his support, despite the steady media drumbeat of a presidency in crisis, etc. If actual evidence of collusion, etc., does surface, we may see that support erode. So, we can speculate all we want about what might come next, and whether this is Watergate redux or not, but it is just that: speculation. I’ll leave that to others. I’m more interested now in explaining why contrary to all media expectations (see Kornacki, et al) he seems impervious to what the media are convinced is impeachable offenses.

  14. OK, maybe I didn’t know what you were responding to; perhaps we’re not following the same “media.” (I see very little TV news, for one thing. Don’t recall ever reading / hearing Kornacki.) It has not looked to me like there was any widespread view that Trump was so damaged that his base would be deserting him by now. There are of course people who think that in a just and rational world, that’s what *should* happen, but if they were conscious on the morning of November 9 then they’re well aware that’s not the world we’re in.

    And yes, there are commentators here and there who have said that something like firing the FBI director, and then blurting out that you did it to stop an investigation that could incriminate you and your associates, is “impeachable” in some abstract sense. But if there were an expectation forming that impeachment either was realistic or was essential given the magnitude of the known misconduct, we would be hearing high-ranking Democrats in Congress talking it up. As far as I know, it’s only in the last few days — in response to proof of Trump’s top people meeting with Russian agents and lying about it — that that’s even begun to happen, and even now it’s still not coming from members of the Dem leadership. Seems to me that everyone knows, and is not surprised, that Trump’s base, and much of GOP officialdom, is still firmly committed to the Fox / Breitbart line on these events for the time being.

  15. Yes, it may be that we are living in slightly different media environments. I don’t watch much cable news either, but I have a predominantly liberal twitter feed and email distribution list. And the gist of the messages they send me is that we are in the midst of an unprecedented constitutional crisis precipitated by a corrupt and spectacularly ineffective president supported by equally corrupt and ineffective aides.

  16. If it’s of interest, here are liberal commentators and/or publications I follow on Twitter:

    Krugman, NY Times
    Jonathan Chait, NY Magazine
    Brian Beutler, The New Republic
    James Fallows, Conor Friedersdorf and David Frum, The Atlantic
    David Corn and Kevin Drum, Mother Jones
    EJ Dionne and Paul Waldmann, Wash Post

    Also, for fun, Keith Olbermann. He’s the only one of these who hyperventilates about impeachment, resignation, treason, etc. (that’s part of the fun), although the others, I would say, are generally agreed that the Trump clan is in serious legal trouble and that it COULD well all end up driving him from office eventually. But they also know he’s got a hard core of true believers and that the GOP Congress so far is completely in the tank.

  17. Oh, and elsewhere in my news feed are Talking Points Memo, FiveThirtyEight, and a few others I look at less often (The New Yorker, VOX, the New York Review, etc.). Again, I would say the consensus among those sources is the same.

  18. Interesting! You certainly get your share of liberal talking heads! As a general rule, I don’t read any opinion columnists at all (so none of your sources make my list), although occasionally one of their tweets will be reposted by someone else on my feed. Nor do I read any data site that doesn’t show me the methodology behind the stories (so no 538). My twitter feed tends to be dominated by political scientists, party and political leaders, and a few good reporters (Gregory Korte, Olivier Knox, Susan Page) who focus on reporting the substance of stories rather than interpreting their meaning for me. My email correspondence, in contrast, is dominated by regular folks and former students scattered across the country who I check in with occasionally to take the various regional political pulses.

  19. I was listing specifically commentators, not straight news reporters. Of course, as you well know, reporters are also interpreting (news framing, story selection, defining beats and relative worthiness of sources, etc.). They just tend to do it as a group, and less explicitly.

  20. I follow a few political scientists, though not on a daily basis: Jonathan Bernstein, Larry Sabato, a few others whose names escape me but who comment on current affairs, often on specialized blogs or magazine sites like The Atlantic or Foreign Policy. And of course yourself. Open to further suggestions if you’ve got any.

  21. Agreed. And I think that framing, story selection, etc., has become increasingly partisan at the major news outlets during the Trump presidency, which is one reason Trump supporters are so distrustful of the Russian stories.

  22. No, those are pretty much the same ones I follow, although on a sporadic basis. I will look in on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog if it’s on a topic of interest. And, like you, I’ll peek at the New Yorker, Atlantic, or Christian Science Monitor for feature-length stories of interest.

    Frankly, the problem I have is information overload. I’m trying to write a book, keep up with the blog site (which I’ve done a miserable job at since Trump was elected), and during the academic year teach my classes. Given the time constraints, it just becomes really difficult to separate the worthwhile media stories that are substantively meaty from the rest of the stuff that is opinion masquerading as reporting. Which is why I gave up on columnists entirely – I just don’t have the time to engage with material for which I usually already know the punch line.

  23. The right has been inveighing against the biased liberal media at least since the 1960s. If Trump supporters are more distrustful now than in the past, my guess is that a big factor is that they have a lot of alternative (alleged) news sources now that didn’t exist then.

  24. Oh, the Monkey Cage, right. And Julie Azari, who writes at VOX and is a devotee of the Skowronek “political time” theory, which I find interesting although I don’t have the expertise to really evaluate it.

  25. Well, that could be part of it. Although alt-right talk radio has been around since the Reagan era. But, as the Harvard Patterson study suggests, I really do think the mainstream coverage has become a lot more negative during Trump’s presidency and, I suspect, more partisan too. However, that’s speculation in need of additional data – I’m looking forward to some additional content analysis of the media coverage during the last six months.

  26. Yes, I try to read Julie’s stuff as much as possible. There are some other people at Vox I will read too – Seth Masket comes to mind – and some good people at Brookings too. Generally, I have go-to people on different topics – Sarah Binder and Josh Huder on Congress, for example. I’m sure I’m leaving good people out tho’.

  27. Matt, I definitely agree with your analysis on why Trump’s coverage by the coastal media is not affecting the views of Trump’s supporters. Even I have been offended by the amount of “gotcha” coverage of Trump’s woes, and the relative inattention to exactly the issues concerning many Trump voters, especially jobs and a more “dominant” (aggressive?) nationalist foreign policy. And I find most of those I know around Middlebury have a decidedly unreasonable and unrealistic view of the state of the Trump presidency, probably because they are overdosing on the East Coast media outlets and their friends’ opinions. I remember going home (to Northeast Ohio) in the late summer of 1964 and finding my parents were convinced beyond doubt that Goldwater would win the election because “everyone they talked to was voting for Goldwater”.

    But even though you met with a number of Trump supporters around areas of the East Coast, both north and south, is this enough to enable you to generalize about their outlook as a group? Did you meet with any groups in western Pennsylvania, or inland from the Norfolk-Wilmington(NC)-Charelston-Savanah areas or in the Florida panhandle, let alone much of Kentucky or West Virginia? If you didn’t I think you need to figure out how to include them in your experiential data-base in some way.

    Bob

  28. Yes, I did see the post on free speech, Matthew. I think it was referenced in either your post or one in the side bar of your writings that I clicked on. Thank you for bringing it to the fore. I don’t think we have seen that last of this debate. Most especially on campuses.

    I have always thought that Voltaire’s comment applied but now I find he did not actually say that. (see below). It was a woman writing a biography of Voltaire. And so much for “Brainy Quote”.

    https://studentactivism.net/2015/01/08/no-voltaire-didnt-say-that-no-not-that-either/

    Voltaire
    Evelyn Beatrice Hall (28 September 1868 – 13 April 1956), who wrote under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre, was an English writer best known for her biography of Voltaire entitled The Life of Voltaire, first published in 1903.

    “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Evelyn Beatrice Hall
    Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/evelynbeat109645.html

    I am now 80 years old (May birthday). I am continually amazed by what can be found on the internet, thanks to the Google Boys, as I call them (think Beagle Boys from Scrooge McDuck comics). How did they think that up? Can it be genius like that of Einstein’s? I don’t know what libraries are doing today but Google is certainly an information disrupter.

    Anyway, the ancient curse is certainly upon us: “May you always live in interesting times.” (I should probably look that up, too.) Trump isn’t dumb or stupid. He is, imho, ignorant, likely caused by his totally self-centered frame of mind–always needing to be No. 1. I also suspect he is a crippled reader. I do know much about that issue. So, he is forever shut out of serious input that’s not verbal or visual.

    Paul

  29. Bob,

    Interestingly, the NYT just ran an article claiming that Trump supporters don’t appreciate the gravity of the Russian collusion because they live in a Breitbart News alternative world. Needless to say, I think it’s another example of the pot calling the kettle black. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/15/opinion/sunday/no-one-cares-about-russia-in-the-world-breitbart-made.html

    You are right about my generalizing about Trump supporters – I spent some time in rural upstate New York, South Carolina, Ohio and Florida talking with Trump supporters, but I really have never talked with Trump supporters in the deep south or far west. Some of what I know about them comes from survey data too, but you are right to note that they are not – yet! – part of my “experiential data-base.”

  30. @Jeff Smith

    It would seem your perspective is as clouded by wishful thinking as that of many other Democrats.

    When you talk about President Trump’s “historically low approval ratings” or his “historically high disapproval”, you completely ignore that they’re more or less in Obama territory.

    As Mr. Dickinson writes in his article, “for much of his presidency, Obama was stuck in a narrow band of 44% approval and 52% disapproval.” In other words, just 3-4 percent less/more than Trump.

    Despite an unprecedented negative media, and the allegations of Russian collusion, Trump is roughly as popular with voters as Obama was for much of his two terms.

    The conclusions to draw here, would be that A: Trump isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon, and B: Rather than “resisting”, Democrats would be wise to treat Trump like any other president. Collaborate when mutual interests align, and seek compromises when they don’t.

  31. @Matthew Dickinson

    Thank you for a surprisingly clear and levelheaded piece. It’s refreshing to see that Trump Derangement Syndrome isn’t coursing through the veins of all of academia.

    The current media environment undoubtedly helps Trump more than it harms him. Many liberal commentators in the media still believe that they are influential and that their opinion matters, but if you look at opinion polls (as well as eyeballs and circulation) the mainstream press in the US is widely distrusted and almost uniquely unpopular. Not only does the negative coverage therefore serve as a stamp of approval among many Americans, and as proof that he hasn’t sold out. It’ll also come in handy in ’18 or ’20 to explain away some of the fiascos and missed election-promises, that any administration invariably have to account for.

  32. Sorry, Victor, but Trump’s approval / disapproval ratings are nothing like Obama’s. Nearly half the public “strongly disapproves” of his job performance right now, a number Obama never reached, ever, and that Bush Jr. reached only by starting a war he couldn’t win and screwing up the Katrina response:

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/07/16/trump_has_lowest_six_month_approval_rating_of_any_u_s_president_in_70_years.html

    Trump’s approval is 19 points lowers than Obama’s at this same point in his term:

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/203198/presidential-approval-ratings-donald-trump.aspx

    Here’s approve / disapprove for Obama over both his terms — his approval hovered around 50% most of those years:

    http://www.gallup.com/poll/113980/gallup-daily-obama-job-approval.aspx

    Finally, a recent average of polls for Trump, plus comparisons with other presidents:

    https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/

    Notice that these links and numbers aren’t all just from one polling organization. The guy’s just not popular.

    Now, I agree that he isn’t going away anytime soon; it would take some indictments and/or serious congressional investigations for that to happen. We’ll see how events unfold. As to the Democrats’ strategy, I haven’t seen too many signs that Trump is inviting their cooperation, but they have obvious interests in things like building infrastructure, preserving access to health care and mitigating the impact of climate change. So in the unlikely event that Trump offered something positive in those areas, I expect he’d be able to get some Democratic votes.

  33. Gentlefolks,

    In the Huffpost aggregate polling, Trump is at about 40% approval as of today. At a comparable time in his presidency (July 16, 2009), Obama was at about 54%. Obama’s approval ratings did not go “underwater” until early in his second year in office, and he did not fall into the low 40% range until after the 2010 midterms. Once there, however, he pretty much remained there, except for the post-2012 bump.

  34. This is a non-partisan site – I pride myself on keeping it that way! I also encourage robust (civil) debate, so post frequently, and bring your friends (and enemies too.)

  35. @Matthew Dickinson

    BTW: If any actual evidence of “collusion” existed, I don’t doubt for a minute, that many from Trumps base would start to defect.

    (That would be collusion with the actualRussian government, rather than with a lawyer, with ties to Democrats, who happens to be Russian.)

    However, I strongly doubt that any evidence of this kind will ever come out.

    If you have read the recent book on the failed Hillary campaign “Shattered”, you might remember how it’s described in the book, that the top of Hillarys campaign-staff settled on “Russia” as the reason for the loss, in a meeting immediately after election-night.

    And the story has played out exactly as something that has grown through a deliberate narrative in search of proof, rather than something growing organically through facts and proof.

    I’d venture that the very raison d’ etre of the story has always been the Democrats election loss, and that very little about it survives a close, critical examination.

    For example: Why would “Russia” even need to collude with the Trump campaign, if they wanted to hurt the Hillary campaign. Whatever damage they could do with the DNC emails for example, they could do by releasing them independently, without ever risking meeting, consulting or colluding with the Trump campaign.

  36. I have no idea what will or won’t be proven with respect to collusion, and I’m happy to leave that to the special prosecutor. The problem, though, with dismissing the Don Jr. meeting as “with a lawyer, with ties to Democrats, who happens to be Russian,” instead of “with the actual Russian government,” is that the following is what, by his own admission, Don Jr. was told:

    “The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.

    “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin.”

    Don Jr.’s response to that was, “if it’s what you say I love it.” That is, he loved the idea of getting “official documents and information” originating from one of the top people in the Russian government as part of an effort on that government’s part to support Trump.

    Now, maybe he didn’t get any, but clearly that wasn’t because he was saying no. Also, we keep finding out more about that meeting (and others) that the Trumps didn’t originally tell us — for instance, that there was another Russian lobbyist there besides the lawyer. The Russians in question have been active in trying to get the Magnitsky Act repealed, which is something Putin wants done.

    All this is undisputed at this point. Maybe that’s it, and there will never be any further revelations. Given, though, that key figures haven’t yet given statements to a grand jury or (as far as we know) to prosecutors or the FBI, I personally wouldn’t lay money on that.

    One other point: I disagree with Victor that Trump’s base would defect if there were proof of collusion. Perhaps we’re defining the terms differently. A politician’s “base,” as I understand it, is the people who will stick with him almost no matter what. Every president seems to have a base that is somewhere at least in the low 20s (about where Trump’s “strong approval” numbers have been). It’s about half the party’s voters. Nixon still had about that many people supporting him on the day he resigned. I think Trump would as well. The people who would defect would be the voters who generally support the party but not necessarily that individual. That’s roughly the other half of party’s voters. The question in coming months will be what those people make of all this.

  37. Victor,

    I think you are right on both counts. A good chunk of Trump’s supporters right now are not convinced that the Russian “collusion” stories merit the attention that the press has been giving them, which is why Trump’s approval ratings seem impervious to the steady drumbeat of Russia-related “bombshells.” However, it may be that the Trump, Jr. revelations will be viewed differently, and will lead to an erosion of support. I suspect not, and for the reasons you cite, but time will tell. As Jeff points out, the story does seem qualitatively different than previous stories that suggested their might be collusion, but never offered clear proof that it occurred. Here we have Trump, Jr. agreeing to meet with what he thought was a representative of the Russian government in order to get dirt on Clinton. Will that finally drive some of Trump’s support away?

    It is also clear that many Trump supporters believe the media Russian narrative is driven by an effort to re-litigate the 2016 election results.

    I also agree that if we see actual evidence of Trump, or his aides, working with the Russians to influence the election, Trump’s support will erode. Whether we call this a loss of support from his “base” is, as Jeff indicates, a function of how one defines “base”.

    The bottom line is that so far, at least, Trump supporters are not nearly as convinced as the media seems to be that the Russian story has legs, but that doesn’t mean they all will back Trump in the face of conclusive evidence of collusion.

  38. Just to clarify my own view, I don’t think the Don Jr. story, or any one story or new revelation, will have much impact on Trump’s support. Similarly with Watergate: It wasn’t any one thing, it was the whole big ball of wax as it was gradually revealed over the course of two years. At each stage, the Nixon administration consistently denied everything, belittled the scandal, stonewalled and withheld evidence as long as it could. Then, bit by bit, more would emerge, and it would turn out that the previous denials had been false — “inoperative,” as the White House press secretary famously put it. Even so, Nixon and his people kept denying and stonewalling, and at least twice tried to shut down the investigation: early on, by lying to the FBI in a scheme whose revelation on tape at the end finally forced Nixon’s resignation, and later by firing the prosecutor (the “Saturday Night Massacre”).

    When all was said and done, it turned out that there had been not just one burglary by some rogue characters with ties to the Nixon campaign, as might have seemed true at first, but a whole secret unit (the “Plumbers”) financed by and operating under White House direction, bugging and burglarizing various targets and perpetrating “dirty tricks” of various kinds. That’s what brought Nixon down — the whole big picture as it finally emerged, plus the fact that he himself, as well as his top aides, seemed provably to have broken the law. But all this developed over the course of two years and many, many, many individual stories.

    This Russia collusion story is not that far along yet. Perhaps it never will be. It does already resemble Watergate in some interesting ways, like the way facts have been coming to light after they had previously been denied or held back. A few months ago, for instance, Trump’s people were insisting that nobody in the Trump campaign even so much as met with any Russians; now it turns out that the campaign’s top leadership did, knew they did, and yet allowed their spokespeople to say they didn’t. Don Jr did not volunteer news of that meeting, and then when finally forced to, he gave descriptions of it that have turned out to be very incomplete. Jared Kushner has had to revise his security clearance forms twice to acknowledge meetings he hadn’t reported, and two other top advisors to Trump’s campaign, Flynn and Manafort, have belatedly registered as foreign agents. And of course we’ve already had a prosecutor fired, explicitly in an effort to stop the investigation.

    So it’s unfolding very much the way Watergate did, so far — but maybe that’s it; maybe we’ve now finally heard everything. If so, it’s not going to do much damage to Trump. Or, maybe those early resemblances reflect deeper resemblances, i.e. as with Watergate, we’re not just talking about this or that one meeting or one story, but a substantial, undisclosed, coordinated effort or program of some kind of which those are tips of the iceberg, and which all the denials and failures to disclose have been intended to cover up. If that’s the case — and obviously, the special prosecutor is going to proceed on the assumption that it might be — then much more information is going to emerge, particularly once a grand jury starts hearing evidence and plea deals start getting made. That’s when Trump would really be in trouble, and when the significant impact on his support (if any) would register in polls. But we’re probably not going to get to that point, if it ever comes, for at least several more months yet.

  39. Jeff–we also have a considerably different social environment and environment of expectations, I think. We had similar denials by Bill Clinton that turned out to be false, for which he was impeached but did not leave office. I may not understand about impeachment but I find it strange that Nixon left under the threat of impeachment and Clinton refused to leave after impeachment.

    So, my point is, no matter how the Trump/Russian thing turns out, Donald is not going to leave office. He will have to lose the election of 2020. No telling what the world and US situation will be then (or even if I will be around to see it, being now 80 years old—the data are daunting). If he can get focused on infrastructure, taxes, universal health care (which he and his wife support) and get them implemented, he will be tough to beat. That is, however, a BIG IF.

  40. J. Paul, I agree that the environment and expectations are different than they were in ’74. As to the comparison with Clinton, here I think these are the key differences:

    > Nixon was apparently guilty of actual crimes. By the time he resigned, the Watergate grand jury had already named him an “unindicted co-conspirator” — unindicted only because the special prosecutor didn’t think the Constitution allowed a president to be indicted while in office — and the “smoking gun” tape revealed Nixon in his own words approving a conspiratorial scheme to obstruct the Watergate investigation by lying to the FBI. The entire legal and political world at the time believed that Nixon would in fact be indicted for federal crimes, and probably convicted and sent to a minimum-security prison as his top aides had been, once he was out of office — except that then he was pardoned.

    > Nixon’s misconduct was part of a larger conspiracy, which I described briefly above, that involved various abuses of authority and misuses of federal agencies. Also, he had apparently cheated on his taxes. The three articles of impeachment pending against him covered a wide range of individual acts.

    > Despite all this, it wasn’t certain that Nixon would actually be removed from office. But after the “smoking gun” tape emerged, there was no hope left that the Senate would acquit him if the impeachment came to trial. He resigned when three senior Republicans went and told him this.

    > By contrast, Clinton WAS acquitted in the Senate; in fact, the Republican Senate did not even have a bare majority to convict him, let alone the two-thirds majority that would have been needed.

    > Compared to Nixon’s, the charge against Clinton was much narrower: lying in a deposition in a private civil suit. It did not include anything like orchestrating a conspiracy of burglars from the White House. I suppose we could call the affair with Monica Lewinsky a “conspiracy” of a kind, but all the evidence at the time indicated that most Americans didn’t consider it grounds for removing Clinton from office, and most thought the special prosecutor who had taken it up was overreaching. Clinton’s approval ratings actually went UP during ’98, as the impeachment drama unfolded, and Democrats defied the usual odds to win seats in that year’s midterm elections — prompting the resignation of the House Speaker who had overseen the impeachment. Nixon’s impeachment, by contrast, had public backing; his approval ratings plummeted, and his party lost big in the ’74 midterms.

    > Clinton was never shown to have broken any laws. The lie in the deposition might have been perjury, but wasn’t, because the judge ruled the whole line of questioning about Lewinsky immaterial to the lawsuit. Perjury is lying about a fact that’s material to the case.

    > The Clinton impeachment came after the Nixon (near-) impeachment. So the Nixon case was there as a precedent, setting the bar for “high crimes” pretty high. Clinton’s antics were obviously stupid, but I think by comparison they seemed to many people fairly trivial and not clearly related to matters of state — whereas efforts to subvert elections by illegal means clearly are.

    Finally, in fairness to Nixon, I should mention again that the economy was tanking over the course of 1974 but booming in 1998. Presidents get cut more slack when they’re presiding over peace and prosperity. I don’t think that’s the main difference between the two cases, but it’s certainly one fact that didn’t help Nixon.

  41. Jeff – You lay out the Russian collusion as Watergate comparison very well. I would only add that while I don’t disagree that what cost Nixon support was the cumulative impact of the Watergate-related events, from the break-ins to the hush money to the Saturday Night massacre, I do think certain events stood out in terms of their impact on his support. The tapes – particularly the “smoking gun” conversation that proved Nixon had known about the Watergate break-in soon after it happened, and had actively conspired to cover it up, was one such tipping point. My sense is that is what it will take to have a similar impact on Trump’s support. His supporters don’t really care all that much if he (or more accurately his campaign/family) were seeking election-related dirt from “the Russians”. And I’m not sure they make much of a distinction between the Russian “government” and the Russians who claim to be speaking for or have contact with the government. That’s politics as usual. But if there’s evidence of illegal activity – illegal in the sense that more than just rabid Trump haters can agree this crosses a line, then I think all bets are off.

  42. J. Paul – I think one difference between Clinton’s and Nixon’s obstruction of justice cases is that Clinton’s was perceived by many to be derived from a purely private, consensual act, whereas Nixon’s was committed in a way that affected the public interest, in the context of his role as President. I’m not defending Clinton’s behavior, mind you – we can discuss issues of workplace sexual harassment, etc. Nor do I deny the seriousness of the charges – his license to practice law was suspended in Arkansas, after all, and he paid a hefty fine. Still, I think for much of the public there was a distinction between Clinton’s and Nixon’s crimes.

  43. And I fully expect you to be posting in the comments section here in 2020, so don’t let me down!

  44. Matthew, I generally agree, and maybe even would go further and say that there’s a core Trump support (his “base”) that won’t abandon him no matter what. Already we’re seeing the effort to spin Russian collusion as totally awesome. Beyond that core, yes, there are going to be quite a few Republican voters for whom the tipping point would be proof of illegality. I mentioned the fact that Don Jr. thought he was dealing with the Russian government at a “very high level” only to remind everyone that that was the case; he did not suppose that he was meeting just with some rogue freelancer. So if wanting or intending to collude with Russia is itself proof of corruption, then we’ve already got the equivalent of the smoking-gun tape.

    But right, what would mostly likely “tip” people, if anything does, would be actual criminal indictments and maybe convictions. As I said, if those happen, I think they’re still months in the future.

  45. Jeff,

    I think it’s pretty clear that – more than clear, it’s fact – that Trump, Jr., thought he was dealing with, directly or indirectly, the Russian government at the highest level. It’s interesting, however, that that didn’t seem to set off alarm bells. The charitable explanation is that for someone who has experience doing business in Russia, the line between the Russian economic oligarchy and the “government” per se is not always clear and for the purposes of doing business, not meaningful. I don’t defend his blind spot on this distinction, mind you – I’m only trying to understand why the alarm bells didn’t go off. A less charitable reading is that he was actively conspiring with the Russian government to rig the election.

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