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.