It was inevitable that we would get to this point, given the two years that preceded it.
On Monday morning, President Trump began the tweetweek with a response to recent polling showing that his executive order on immigration is more unpopular than it is popular. And lo:
(Among those polls, one from CNN-ORC aired shortly before Trump’s tweet, reinforcing the idea that many of his morning tweets may be responses to what he sees on television.)
The immediate response to this, as always, is that national polling from CNN, ABC (which partners with The Washington Post) and NBC was broadly correct in the past election. The last Post-ABC tracking poll had Hillary Clinton up by 3 points. On average, polls had her winning by 3.2 percent. She won by 2.1.
The secondary response is the more important one. “Any negative polls are fake news” is a remarkable sentiment. A president can’t both insist that everything is going perfectly and enact controversial, unpopular policies without something giving. In this case, what’s giving is reality. Trump’s antipathy to polling has reached its apex: Anything that says anything bad is made up.
You may remember that, until about a year ago, polls were the magical validation of the Donald Trump phenomenon. During the primaries, Trump would spend a good deal of time fussing over his poll numbers, about how he was winning nationally and how he was winning in key states. He would talk about his poll numbers at his rallies, a habit that seemed bizarre at first and then simply folded into the broader universe of Trump’s weird politicking.
The effect was to make it very clear when Trump wasn’t happy with what the polls showed. When the general election dawned, he stopped talking about what the polls showed, because he was trailing, and began talking about how the polls were rigged against him or otherwise contrived. He never said that all of the polls that showed him losing were fake, but he would go out of his way to instead highlight shaky polls that offered the news he wanted.
In the wake of the election, he seized upon the discussion of “fake news,” an appellation that originally was used to describe intentionally false stories created to goad people into visiting sloppily created websites and to generate ad revenue. For Trump, it was the perfect way of dismissing any news reporting that he didn’t like. Since the election, he’s used the phrase 17 times on Twitter, first to disparage a story about Russian involvement in the election and later as a broad-brush response to individual stories or themes.
Monday morning’s tweet was more direct still: Anything that has negative information about me is fake. It’s of a piece with another statement he tweeted over the weekend.
When a judge ruled that Trump’s executive order on immigration should be halted, Trump’s response was abnormal for a president. The judge wasn’t a judge, he was a “so-called” judge, a proprietor of fake judgment. The judge offered an opinion contrary to Trump’s and therefore was not to be trusted.
Or voting. That loss to Clinton in the popular vote still grates on Trump, and so he still seeks to dismiss it, throwing out the completely unsupported theory that millions of votes in the election were fraudulent. His first formulation of the extent of that fraud was 3 million votes — just more than the margin by which he lost. And all of those imaginary fraudulent votes, he insisted to ABC’s David Muir, went to his opponent. Voilà. Trump gets the news he wants.
The seeming inevitability of all of this stems from Trump’s broad willingness to embrace shaky or erroneous information for his own political benefit. That vote fraud claim stemmed from one unsourced tweet picked up by the conspiracy-theory site Infowars. But this isn’t new to his candidacy. His infamous claim that he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating on 9/11 demanded one of two responses from observers: acknowledgment that Trump was lying or wrong or an assumption that the news media was incorrect or biased in pointing out Trump’s error. That’s one example of many; Trump’s frequent forays into surrealism eventually demanded that nearly anyone who wanted to support him come along for the ride.
There may be another reason that Trump is eager to dismiss unflattering polling. In its stark description of his struggling administration, the New York Times quoted Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of conservative Newsmax Media.
“I think, in his mind, the success of this is going to be the poll numbers,” Ruddy told the Times. “If they continue to be weak or go lower, then somebody’s going to have to bear some responsibility for that.”
Perhaps internally. Externally, the punishment will be borne by the concept of reality itself. But poll numbers clearly factor heavily into Trump’s thinking. In October 2015, after I wrote an analysis of how online polls seemed to show a more favorable picture for Trump than phone polls, he called me to challenge my assertion. While the campaign has reached out to me with feedback on occasion, it was the only time that he himself did so.
The real risk here is that Trump is fostering a bubble of misinformation among his supporters. He’s not creating that bubble; to some extent, supporting Trump has always meant a willingness to set aside an insistence on factual accuracy. But this tweet signals a further retreat into that bubble and an insistence from his supporters that they tune out anything that isn’t approved by Trump himself. That is valuable to a politician, certainly. But it’s clearly detrimental to the idea of an informed public weighing in on political decisions, the often unrealized ideal of our democracy.
Ironically, this was the tweet that followed Trump’s dismissal of all negative information.
“I call my own shots, largely based on an accumulation of data,” Trump says. Only one of two things can be true: Trump makes decisions based on data or polls with negative information are false. Otherwise Trump is either including only positive and favorable information in his decision-making process — a deeply problematic way of approaching problems — or he’s cynically telling his supporters that unfavorable polls are wrong, despite knowing that they are not.
I’m honestly not sure which is more likely.