There are any number of thankless jobs involved in supporting an elected official, but there are probably few jobs in American politics more thankless than being the person in charge of writing the speeches that appear in President Trump’s teleprompter during campaign rallies.
Perhaps it’s meditative, like building an intricate mandala of sand only to quickly see it wiped away. It’s more likely reminiscent of one of those paper banners high school spirit squads make before home football games: full of cheer and support and created with the recognition that it’s about to be ripped apart as the team runs straight through it.
So it was on Monday night in El Paso, where Trump held his first campaign rally of 2019. (It was not, by any measure, his first reelection campaign rally; that happened nearly two years ago, depending on how you count it.) Trump began his speech by outlining his successes, reading his prepared remarks.
“America is winning again. Isn’t that nice?” he said. “We’re fighting for all Americans from all backgrounds, of every age, race, religion, birthplace, color, creed. We’re fighting for ourselves; we’re fighting for all Americans, and what is it? America first. Remember, it’s America first.”
“USA! USA!” the crowd chanted in response.
“Our agenda is not a partisan agenda,” Trump continued, reading from the teleprompter. This was his message from the State of the Union address, too: These things he wants to do are simply the things that Americans broadly want to do, he asserts and, perhaps, believes. An expanded wall on the border with Mexico is demonstrably not something most Americans support, but you wouldn’t know that if you looked only at Trump’s rally attendees or his favorite media outlets.
Trump’s speechwriter, at least, seems to get that framing his positions as bipartisan is a way to soften up the fervent opposition to his administration that he’s seen. And so, the claim is repeated that Trump’s agenda is simply an agenda for the people, and not partisan.
And then Trump started to freelance.
“Although some people say it is,” he said, without looking at the prompter. “Every once in a while it does become that way, right?”
That said, that recognition that he was, in fact, delivering specifically for his base, for the people in that room, he returned to the prompter.
“It’s a mainstream, common-sense agenda of the American people,” he said, somewhat incongruously. “It’s where we want to be and where we want to go.”
How does Trump know that his agenda is the agenda of the American people? A poll.
“And despite the fact that the media refuses to acknowledge what we’ve done and how well we’re doing it,” Trump continued, “a new poll just came out, as I was coming on, and it shows — I don’t know how you can do this. I don’t think I’ve had a good story in years. I don’t get good press — I used to get great press. Until I decided to run for office. And we have done together an incredible job.”
He continued: “And a new poll just came out today, Rasmussen, one of the most respected polls, one of the polls that got the election right, so I have to remember that. You know what the number is? Fifty-two percent — with no good news! Explain that! Explain that! How do you get that when you don’t get good press? I guess 93 percent of the stories are negative. No matter what we do, we figure out a way to make it negative.”
So let us pick out the two figures in that bit of rhetoric.
First, the 52 percent from Rasmussen Reports: Their daily tracking poll did have Trump at 52 percent, but that has since slipped back down to 50 percent. But Rasmussen’s poll numbers, as we’ve noted repeatedly, are consistently substantially friendlier to Trump than are other poll numbers. On nearly every day of Trump’s presidency, Rasmussen’s approval number has been higher than the RealClearPolitics average of approval polls.
As for the pollsters’ accuracy, Rasmussen was close to the mark in its final 2016 poll, putting Hillary Clinton up 2 points in an election where she won by about 2 percent of the popular vote. But in the 2018 midterms, Rasmussen was way off the mark, expecting Republicans to earn more support in House voting. Democrats earned more House votes nationally by a margin of 8.4 percentage points.
Then there’s that 93 percent figure, which Trump has been citing since before the 2016 election. Fox News tracked it down at the time and figured he was misreporting a number from the conservative Media Research Center. That analysis looked at coverage of Trump and Clinton from late July to mid-October 2016, finding that 91 percent of coverage was down on Trump. (Clinton’s coverage, incidentally, was 79 percent negative.)
Why might Trump’s coverage have been more negative? Well, that period of time included both his extended fight with a gold-star family after the Democratic convention, his three poorly received presidential debates and, most notably, the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape and subsequent groping allegations against him.
But this is the pattern. Trump argues that his agenda — his base’s agenda — is the natural order of things, an agenda that Americans actually support despite what the media reports and despite the media’s relentlessly negative attention. Trump’s pitch to his base, as always, was that they’re in it together to shape America as they believe it should be shaped. He frames this occasionally in the lofty language of inclusivity, and people know to applaud that rhetoric. But he can’t even get through a brief foray into bipartisanship in front of his base without stopping to wink at them — and then remind them he believes things are stacked against him in a biased media.
This is how Trump ran in 2016. It’s how he’s running now.
Ten minutes after Trump accused the media of never running positive stories about his presidency, a man in a “Make America Great Again” hat shoved a cameraman for the BBC and was removed from the arena.