The question posed to President Trump by Axios’s Jim VandeHei wasn’t a tricky one.
“You are the most powerful person in the world, and if you say that word, ‘enemy, enemy’” — about members of the media — “literally tens of thousands of people go into a stadium to listen to you, and then people go on social media, and they get themselves so jazzed up, there’s got to be a part of you that’s like . . . I’m scared that someone is going to take it too far.”
“Jim,” Trump replied, “it’s my only form of fighting back. I couldn’t be here if I did that.”
“You won!” VandeHei said. “You have the presidency!"
“But I did this before I won,” Trump replied.
That answer, while unsurprising, is revealing. For Trump, the presidency is simply a continuation of the political fight that preceded Nov. 8, 2016, the day he was elected. He has to keep fighting back against the media, he feels, just as he has to keep fighting back against his political opponents. For Trump, Nov. 8, 2016, wasn’t V-E Day. It was D-Day, a successful battle that put Trump on the continent where he could keep fighting his war.
It’s important to recognize how Trump came into politics in the first place.
Trump was a registered Democrat in the 2008 election, switching in 2009 to the GOP. That was an important year, politically. It was the year that Barack Obama was inaugurated. It was the year Twitter began to dominate real-time political social media interactions. It was the year that congressional Republicans coalesced around a strategy of fervent opposition to Democratic policy proposals. It was the year that Breitbart News published videos by James O’Keefe raising questions about the activist organization ACORN. It was the year that Glenn Beck, then probably Fox News’s most fervent partisan, managed to get President Barack Obama to boot Van Jones from his White House advisory position.
This was the year that Trump became a Republican. The next year, he began appearing as a regular guest on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends,” calling in to offer his opinions. In 2011, those calls became a scheduled feature. Fox, facing pressure from Breitbart and a conservative media ecosystem popping up on and leveraging the Internet, would keep moving right to preserve market share. By 2011, Trump would be floating a presidential bid, the most obvious platform position of which was his opposition to Obama, manifested in birtherism.
Politics was already polarized, but this was also the period in which the presidency became polarized. By the end of 2009, Obama’s approval rating had dropped below 50 percent, a function of Republican support, once over 25 percent, slipping to around 10 percent. For the rest of his presidency, that was the pattern: Strong support from Democrats, strong opposition from Republicans, and the overall approval rating largely depending on where independents landed.
This was Trump’s world. Having established his personal brand as a successful businessman thanks to NBC, he was now establishing a different persona: Real-talking conservative celebrity. His arguments on Fox and Twitter were, as now, often questionable, but they were generally unified in their focus: The Obama administration was an unmitigated disaster, and he could do better.
Obama and his allies would argue that by embracing the standard tools available to a president, he sought to unify Americans. In his first months, with the recession just starting to fade and the deeply unpopular George W. Bush headed to retirement, Americans were ready to rally around Obama to some extent. But again, that faded. When Obama gave a speech last month criticizing Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — who himself had criticized Trump in similar terms during the Republican 2016 primary campaign — disparaged Obama as being divisive.
Those tweets encompass the two ways in which Obama was seen as divisive no matter how much he believed he was trying to unify the country.
The first is that Obama’s specific policy proposals were seen as inherently divisive even if, as in the case of the Affordable Care Act, the policies were themselves the product of compromise on the part of the Democrats.
The second, overlapping problem is that conservative media outlets, including Fox News, would isolate and amplify comments such as the “clingers” comment above to relentlessly hammer Obama as out of touch or anti-Republican. Fox News was and is the most trusted media outlet among Republicans, according to Suffolk University polling, and it effectively served as a point of media opposition to Obama. On those occasions when Obama criticized the media, he would generally focus on Fox News.
What Trump promised the Republican electorate in 2016 was a candidacy that would mirror Fox’s rhetoric. Most of the 2016 Republican primary field, coming to the race from elected office and understanding that Fox commentary was often not reflective of political realities, indicated an intention to stay the course on civility and Washington-as-usual. Trump didn’t. He said what you’d expect a Fox News regular to say, and Fox New regulars embraced it. He built a core base of support that, in a crowded field, pushed him to the front of the pack. There were (and are) a lot more Fox News Republicans than CNN Republicans.
Notice on the graph above that Trump came into office with the same sort of polarized electorate that emerged for Obama only by the end of 2009. Democrats hated Trump from the outset, and Republicans loved him. That’s why Trump’s approval rating was so much lower than Obama’s at the beginning of his presidency. We could say that Trump didn’t get a honeymoon period from voters — or we could say that Trump became president in a moment when honeymoon periods no longer existed.
Trump has never shown any great willingness to try to unify Americans around a common patriotic cause. He says he does and has said so since he won the presidency. The Trump presidency is a ceaseless combination of divisive, angry language and actions that are unsanded versions of what conservative Americans want to see. We hear hand-wringing about Trump’s language with some regularity, but in polling and in conversation with his supporters it’s obvious that his pugilism is what many want and expect. He’s still the conservative-media president.
The question is whether a more moderated Trump could entice Democrats to be more supportive of him. Or, more broadly, if any president could do so. Trump is uniquely attuned to the combativeness that dominated conservative media during Obama’s administration and sees the mainstream media as pushing back on him now in the same way. But much of the split in opinions on Trump is certainly a function of partisanship.
Republicans and Democrats broadly distrust one another. Their policy views are divergent. Each party believes that the other doesn’t accept established facts. Dislike for the opposition is a primary driver for party loyalty. What partisan president could overcome that?
Again, there’s not much evidence that Trump is trying particularly hard. But then, given his tenure on the national political scene, we shouldn’t be surprised.