It’s no secret that Donald Trump likes to brag (and brag often) about the historical significance of his presidency. Sometimes it’s in regard to new highs in the stock market or other economic figures — things he should certainly be proud of. Other times, the “records” he touts, when held up to the facts, aren’t really records at all, but rather gratuitous opportunities to congratulate himself.
But as Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner wrote in an interesting piece the other day, one historical record that Trump has unquestionably achieved is that of approval stability.
“What’s that?” you might be asking.
Simply put, President Trump’s approval rating has fluctuated less than any other president’s in American history (at least since pollsters began measuring presidential approval back during the Truman administration). As Klein points out (citing historical Gallup data), Trump has never polled higher than 46% or lower than 35%.
“That’s a stark contrast to prior presidents, who have typically seen wide swings in approval over the course of their presidencies,” writes Klein.
Prior to Trump, John F. Kennedy held the narrowest approval range, peaking at 83% and bottoming at 56%. That’s a fluctuation of 27 points. Trump’s range has been much tighter: a mere 11 points.
Why does this matter? In the scheme of everyday life in America, it really doesn’t. But in political terms, it’s rather telling.
The stability suggests that people’s sentiments toward Trump aren’t reliant on the state of the union. Regardless of his decisions and policies, what’s going on in America at any given time, and what the outlook is for our nation’s future, people’s views of Trump don’t really change.
For example, the economy has been very strong under Trump (better than when he took office), and Americans are aware of that. The polls suggest that most people approve of the president’s handling of the economy, but their opinions of him and his overall performance are roughly where they’ve always been.
Another example: People in the mainstream media hammer Trump on a daily basis. Some of it is fair, and a lot of it is unfair. Regardless, the public’s perception of Trump doesn’t appear to be phased by what they’re doing. In fact, according to the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, Trump’s approval stands today where it stood the day he was sworn into office.
The Russia investigation, the trade war, the sky-high stock market, our soaring national debt, full employment, compulsory and consequential foreign policy decisions, and now impeachment… Under other presidencies, these conditions would be good for peaks and canyons in approval. But not under Trump’s. None of it seems to have more than a negligible effect either way.
Can this all be attributed to political tribalism — the notion that we the people are now so committed to our political teams that our support for our side, and our opposition to the other, is unconditional?
I think that’s certainly a big part of it. There are a lot of people in this country who support and defend literally anything with Donald Trump’s fingerprints on it (even when it means surrendering their longtime personal beliefs). The inverse is true of many of Trump’s opponents, who would oppose this president even if he handed them every political victory they’d ever asked for, on a silver platter.
But the breakdown of hyper-partisans in this county isn’t a 50/50 split among the American electorate. A lot of voters aren’t partisans and aren’t committed to either team. Yet, their overall views of Trump also seem pretty much set in stone.
Why is that? I think the answer is twofold.
First of all, people will never forget the 2016 election-cycle. That’s when Trump worked tirelessly to establish himself as one of the most polarizing political figures in American history.
This didn’t happen due to some unfair media representation of Trump. In fact, the media largely loved his bizarre and vitriolic campaign, because it was great for ratings and journalists didn’t think the man stood a chance of beating Hillary Clinton. No, the polarization came from Trump and Trump alone as he showed voters exactly who he was.
After all, you can’t do things like mock American POWs for their capture, lampoon a reporter’s birth-defect disability, publicly muse about a journalist’s menstrual cycle, and say a trial judge can’t perform his job because “he’s a Mexican,” and then insist it’s the media that made those incidents (and you) look bad.
Secondly, Trump has never made an attempt, since the election, to win over the hearts and minds of those he chased off back then. In fact, he’s only confirmed to those people that they had him pegged correctly as a needlessly vindictive, emotionally and intellectually unfit individual. He offered another reminder of that just the other day when he suggested that the late husband of Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell was “looking up” from hell. (Trump said this because Dingell voted to impeach him.)
Again, you can’t imply that a grieving widow’s husband is burning in hell, and then blame the media for making people angry about it. So even if Americans who aren’t fans of Trump like some of the things that have come from his presidency, Trump has made certain that their view of him will never be a positive one, even if they don’t particularly care for his Democratic opponents either. When you add that element to the tribalism component, you get a historically stable (and historically low) approval rating.
Could Trump have changed the public’s perception of him? Can he still do it?
I think it’s possible, but we’ll never know for sure because the portion of the electorate that makes up his loyal base continues to support, defend, and cheer just about everything he does — including the very ugly stuff. And to a guy like Trump, who always responds to flattery over doing what’s morally right, such obedience is validation that his worst instincts are the correct ones.
For those reasons, it’s very likely that Trump’s stable (and underwater) approval pattern will continue through next year. If that’s the case, will he lose the election? Maybe, but you’d be foolish to count him out. Keep in mind that he wasn’t liked by most voters when he won three years ago, and the latest polls show that Americans aren’t exactly excited about his potential 2020 opponents.
Still, even a modest rise in approval would make the task much easier for Trump.
Because our president himself is the prevailing factor in how nearly everyone views his overall presidency, it sure would be interesting to see what would happen if Trump did the unthinkable and at least tried to be a decent guy. I’m talking about being the kind of person who doesn’t, as Mark Galli of Christianity Today put it yesterday, “dumb down the idea of morality” and use his Twitter account to spread a “habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders.”
Even in a disingenuous effort, what would be the downside of such a venture?
Would Trump’s loyalists abandon him? Of course not. Would the media and Democrats come after him harder than they do now? With less ammunition, it’s tough to see how.
Maybe…just maybe, behaving like a respectable grown-up for a while would actually lift Trump’s approval ceiling. And if that were to happen, maybe…just maybe, disaffected but persuadable voters would finally consider Trump an acceptable recipient of their vote.
It sure seems like an easy enough experiment to conduct. Yet, we all know that it will never happen…and that’s because — as reflected in his approval ratings — we understand exactly who Trump is, and what his narcissism won’t allow him to do.
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