Was anyone surprised by the recent CNN poll finding President Trump’s approval rating at 42 percent, the highest it has been since the first Infrastructure Week?
The thousand undifferentiated scoops in the phantasmal Mueller investigation, the vicissitudes of his hundred shifting positions on DACA and the fabled border wall, Stormy Daniels, a reversal of course in Syria and Afghanistan, moronic schemes from the White House to turn food stamps into some kind of vast network of state-run bread and milk distribution centers, endless championing of the Wall Street gazillionaires against whom he had supposedly been running in 2016, relentless staff turnaround, a so-far-illusory trade war conducted from the internet with minimal strategy or cohesion, even “covfefe”: Not one of these things matters to the not-quite-majority of Americans who voted for Trump. They still like him.
Why shouldn’t they? The reasons for opposing Trump were clear from the beginning. He was a crude, mean-spirited man whose most noteworthy accomplishments were kicking old people out of their homes to make room for casino parking lots, speculating publicly about whether the duly elected president of the United States was a jihadist plant, and pretending to fire Gary Busey in the fake board-room of a made-up company on NBC. It was only the staggering irrelevance of what all 15 other Republican candidates were saying — it is almost sad now to think of the millions of words of Heritage Foundation PowerPoints still gathering virtual dust on Jeb Bush’s website — that made his candidacy possible. Years later the GOP is still talking nonsense about freedom and entrepreneurship, the Democrats are still obsessed with where people go to the bathroom, and Trump is still being rude on television. Nothing has changed. If anything, there is good reason to believe that in the weeks and months to come polls without the historic Republican bias of Rassmussen will approach the 50 percent mark.
It’s not surprising that after little more than a year in office many people who voted for a president still support him. But it’s also surprising that a president who has been the object of more negative reporting than any in our history still enjoys something like the same middling base of support he had before taking office. Unless it’s the negative reporting that is the problem, which I suspect is very largely the case. You can only ask adults to participate in the fiction that a retweet of a wrestling GIF is a credible threat of violence against some nerd reporters at a cable station or delight in what you hope will be the failure of American trade policy before they decide to tune you out. Very largely this had already happened by Inauguration Day, but now the work of MSNBC and The New York Timesand PolitiFact is complete. Millions of Americans do not know the difference between what is true and what is false and have decided that they do not much care either.
There was, I like fondly to imagine, a different course that might have been taken here. It is just possible, I suppose, that members of my profession could have exercised their reasoning faculties to decide what in the administration was good, what was bad, what was unremarkable or indistinguishable from what any modern president would do, what was painfully idiotic, what was, perhaps, evil. We chose not to exercise this responsibility. Instead we decided to indulge in our live-action roleplaying fantasies about being brave selfless journos taking on a mean demagogue because we love the Constitution so much.
There is, however, a faint glimmer of hope for Trump’s enemies in the media. Making it work would require the coordinated efforts of a vast number of persons — conspiracy is the word for it, or maybe even “collusion” — but that shouldn’t be difficult in the era of modern internet-based communication. If we want to convince people who voted for him that the president no longer deserves their support, we need to stop talking about him. Or to be more precise, we need to stop making Trump the universal metric according to which all of human conduct is weighed and considered.
If Trump argues against free trade, consider the issue on its merits. The idea that liberalizing the production and distribution of goods and services across national borders will automatically enrich everyone — instead of just the already wealthy in rich and poor countries alike — has had its critics on the left and the right for centuries; even President Obama was skeptical of NAFTA during his first Senate campaign and as late as the 2008 election he was telling audiences that it should be renegotiated. When Trump criticizes Amazon for its monopolistic practices, don’t turn it into a tedious finger-wagging exercise in fact-checking (and if you work for a newspaper owned by its founder and CEO, maybe avoid saying anything if you don’t have to); subject the company to the same scrutiny you would reserve for any other giant corporation that treats America’s cities as its fiefdoms and her people as its grateful serfs.
Pretending that anything the president says or does is bad because he is the one saying or doing isn’t just bad journalism. You might as well be wearing a MAGA hat and whooping about the Wall.