The choice that President Trump asks America to make is a simple one and one that he’s demanded since he jumped into the presidential race. Who are you going to believe, he asks: An industry of people whose jobs depend on presenting factually accurate information about what’s happening in the world — or me?
And from the outset, we’ve seen how his supporters answer that question. They believe him.
The most recent demonstration of that result comes from a poll released on Thursday from Marist College. Poll respondents were asked whom they trusted more, their favorite news source or Trump. Most Americans said their favorite news source, including large majorities of independents and huge majorities of Democrats.
But most Republicans said they trust Trump more, including just shy of two-thirds of those who voted for Trump last year (“Trump supporters” on the charts below).
Consider the language used in this question. Marist didn’t ask people whom they trusted more between the media at large and Trump; it was a choice between the media outlet you like the best and the president. Presumably, the media outlet you like the best is the one you consider most reliable and informative, but even pitting a Trump supporter’s top pick of all of the media outlets against the president, the president wins.
Part of this is simply a function of that distinction being lost, certainly. There’s an ongoing performative aspect to the question of Trump vs. media, as Trump is aware and fosters and demonstrates. Trump knows that the things he derides as “fake news” on Twitter are almost never actually fake news. He’s simply trying to add smoke to the cloud of uncertainty he likes to have hovering around the things that he does. His supporters have bought into this strategy and so, while many no doubt would roll their eyes at something Trump says sooner than they might question what they see on Fox News, a pollster (a hated pollster!) asking about media vs. Trump is going to hear that Trump is preferred.
Marist’s question about Trump’s tweeting adds a new angle to this question.
Again, most Americans think that his tweeting is bad. Republicans and Trump voters, though, are more likely to say it is informative.
Some of this is also performative (both among Trump supporters and opponents). Trump does it and advocates it; therefore it’s good or bad regardless of what the question is actually answering. But it’s also clear that some large section of Trump’s base and the Republican party sees Trump’s Twitter account in precisely the way he positions it: As true facts being disseminated to counter media lies. Sure, many of the claims in those tweets have been shown to be false — but shown to be false by the media, which is less trusted than Trump. Hence the challenge.
(An interesting thing to note, before we move on. While a plurality of white evangelical respondents trust Trump more than the media, they’re less likely to approve of his tweeting than are the moderate Republicans who shared their opinion on media trust.)
This poll was released on the heels of another survey that adds still more context to the question of media trust. A Politico-Morning Consult survey conducted online found that nearly half of Americans, a plurality, thinks that the media makes up stories about the president out of whole cloth. (Specifically, the question asked: “Based on what you know, do you believe the nation’s major news organizations fabricate news stories about President Trump and his administration, or not?”) That number includes three-quarters of Republicans and even 20 percent of Democrats.
One of the challenges of talking about “the media” in 2017 is that it is a necessarily vague term. Are we talking about CNN, Fox News, the New York Times and The Post? Are we also looping in online news sources like Vox or the Daily Caller? Are we including sites that have proven track records of making up or passing along false information? Where is the line drawn?
Among Trump supporters, Trump has already won his war on the media. After decades of declining public trust in the media (which helped him win that war), even many of those predisposed to dislike Trump seem to agree with one of his central arguments about the press: It acts unfairly. (Five percent of Democrats and 6 percent of black respondents trust Trump more than their favorite news outlet!)
Marist asked another question, too.
If you believe Trump more than the media and Trump says that he’s doing great but the media doesn’t, you’ll think he’s doing great. You’ll perhaps think he’s one of the best presidents in history. And even if Trump were to do something that in another context you’d find abhorrent, if Trump says he didn’t do it but the media says he did, your opinion wouldn’t change.
This is a tricky way to run a democracy.