Attention is like oxygen for our narcissistic president. He craves the limelight, hungers for approval and cannot stop congratulating himself for just about everything (no airline crashes!). He won the primaries and arguably the general election by doing what he does best: monopolizing media coverage. A year into his presidency, however, viewers — er, voters — are tuning out.
The Brookings Institution is out with an interesting “big data” study tracking Google searches:
There were a number of important trends in internet searches relevant to President Trump in 2017. Data show interest in Trump plummeting over the course of the year; variations in interest in economic, domestic, and foreign policy, depending on the time of year; spikes in interest in Russia, terrorism, taxes, and inequality as those topics were in the news; significant differences across states and cities as various topics surfaced nationally; and interest in impeachment surging during May and November.
There is one topic that really has grabbed the public’s imagination, however. “Impeachment interest has surged during Trump’s first year. In May and November, there were major spikes in public interest in that topic as Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in May and saw leading advisors face federal indictment in November.”
The study comes with a number of caveats:
First, [search data] are highly aggregated and it is not possible to break down the overall numbers by age, gender, race, or other important demographic categories. Second, they measure interest in a topic, but not the direction of sentiment. Third, search data are sensitive to the terms being queried. The word “race,” for example, can generate different results than the word “minorities.”
Still, it is fair to say that in a year after arguably the weirdest election in most voters’ lifetimes (yes, weirder than 2000), political interest is going to tail off. Remember, a good deal of the electorate ignores even midterms and perks up only a few months before the presidential election. The challenge for each party is to keep its voters engaged. And in that regard, Democrats may have the upper hand. Breaking down the data by progressives, conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, it seems that among Trump’s base, interest waned:
Reflecting the polarized nature of American politics and the contentiousness surrounding the start of the Trump administration, public interest in all four groupings was very high in January and February. It dropped during the summer, but then rose again for progressives in the weeks leading up to the off-year November elections. Searches for progressives were much higher in September, October, and November than any of the other political groups. Democrats made major gains then in Virginia, New Jersey, and Alabama.
We don’t know if interest waned because Republicans were heading for losses (i.e. Trumpkins tuned out bad news for their guy) or if Republicans got slammed because their base has lost interest in politics. Perhaps for some, electing Trump was all they needed to do to “show those elites” what’s what.
This should not be all that surprising. It’s often easier to whip up opposition — particularly against a chaotic and outlandish leader — than it is to slog through the day-to-day ordeal of rationalizing his behavior. At some points, the loyalists get discouraged or just bored. This is especially the case with Trump, who has the uncanny ability to undercut his own agenda and reveal his worst qualities. He’s not very good, in other words, at concealing his ignorance, racism and contempt for democracy. The Post’s Dan Balz recently reported, “None of his opponents — not the Democrats, not the Never Trumpers, not any of the others — can damage him as badly as he hurts himself.”
When that happens over and over, the understandable reaction for Republicans is to bury their heads in the sand. As Balz noted:
His response to events that go against him is to lash out by declaring that the processes of our democratic system are rigged or broken. His perspective on democratic governance is viewed almost entirely through the lens of whether he, personally, is winning or losing.
For some Trump advisers and for many Republican elected officials, there is an almost automatic reaction to turn away when things like this occur, either to pretend what happened did not happen or to dismiss them as a president blowing off steam, like somebody ranting in a bar.
Mind you, Democrats fear their own base will tire as well. Watching outrage after outrage is exhausting. On the other hand, victories in 2017 have whetted the appetite of Democrats, and grass-roots enthusiasm remains high, as we’ve seen in marches, political donations and candidates running for office. Fueled by #MeToo (not tracked in the Brookings study) and Trump’s regular racist outbursts, Democrats surely have the edge in maintaining interest. If anything, their difficulty will be in deciding which outrage to focus upon most as we get closer to the midterms.