President Trump offered a neatly encapsulated defense of his presidency when speaking to Breitbart in the Oval Office on Monday.
The president had claimed that even if Democrats won the White House, there would be “a violent turn to the other direction” in opposition to Democratic policies. So was Trump worried about a similar “violent turn” away from him?
“I don’t think so, because we’ve had our best poll numbers,” Trump replied. “You saw them — we’ve had our best poll numbers. We had nothing but fake news. Fox treats me well — and when I say well, I define well as fairly. It’s not — some of it’s not so good at all. But at least it’s fair. I do really well with local — you know, the local stuff is shockingly good. It’s almost like not even to be believed. But CNN and MSNBC and NBC, ABC and, yeah, CBS, they’re all extraordinarily bad.”
Abandoning his newfound passion for brevity, Trump makes two familiar points. America wouldn’t swing back to the left after his presidency because, first, America thinks he’s doing a good job and, second, anything bad you hear is a function of the media’s lies.
The scribes from Breitbart appear to have been disinclined to challenge this presentation of Trump's case. But it's a bad case.
Trump’s claim about his approval numbers mirrors one made in an email sent out by his fundraising committee over the weekend.
The email mimics the appearance of a headline at the Drudge Report, which is probably not an accident. But, at best, it’s overstating the case.
The campaign is cherry-picking one poll number from one (consistently friendly) pollster to make its case. On Feb. 12, Rasmussen Reports had Trump’s approval at 52 percent, the first time it had been that high since Trump’s initial honeymoon period right after taking office. Before Trump’s inauguration, former president Barack Obama’s approval rating was at or above 52 percent consistently from late October 2016 on.
And this is in a poll that almost always has higher approval numbers for Trump than the RealClearPolitics polling average. Since Feb. 12, by the way, Trump’s average approval has been 49 percent. The 52 percent was an outlier among otherwise unremarkable numbers.
To Breitbart, Trump doesn’t even drop that 52 percent figure (which, of course, also means that only barely half the country thinks he’s doing a good job). He just vaguely waves at the idea that he’s had his best poll numbers, which isn’t even true solely within the context of Rasmussen.
Why? Why this continuing insistence that he’s doing better than you might think if you solely rely on reality?
In part, certainly, because of his own vanity. But in part because Trump understands that much of his base considers very little to be as important as his promise to defeat their cultural enemies.
Pew Research Center asked Americans last summer if they approved of Trump and, if so, why. Among those who said they approved of him, 60 percent said it was because of his approach to the job and personality. That was three times the number that cited his policies and values.
What’s included in “approach and personality”? About 30 percent of those who approved of Trump cited his putting Americans first, his speaking his mind and his not being a typical politician. One through line to those characteristics is precisely his willingness to fight for his base.
On the campaign trail, Trump made any number of promises, but few were as consistent as his stated intent to punch the elites in the nose. He disparaged his own party’s leaders and Democratic politicians as being unwilling to do what was needed, echoing the rhetoric that was prominent in conservative media. Hillary Clinton was a robust example of the sort of institutionalized politics and money that Trump disparaged, to his political benefit. Trump’s push to fight against his political enemies was occasionally manifested literally at his rallies but gained enormous energy online, where memes disparaging his political opponents in virulent terms spread rapidly.
“You’re going to get tired of winning,” Trump promised his base. And over the course of his presidency, he’s been deliberate about assuring them that they are, despite evidence to the contrary.
Sometimes, though, it’s impossible for Trump to preserve the facade. Before the midterm elections, he insisted both that there would be a wave in favor of the Republicans and that his endorsement would carry any Republican across the finish line. Instead, of course, the Republicans got devastated in House elections.
Trump tried valiantly to spin the election as a win, focusing on picking up two seats in the Senate instead of the House losses. (And while ignoring that Republicans lost most of the Senate contests on the ballot last year.) But data from YouGov provided to The Post shows that Republican enthusiasm for Trump, which had built up before the election, collapsed after the loss.
Between the election and the start of the government shutdown, the seven-day average of Trump’s strong approval fell 11 percentage points.
The shutdown, incidentally, was another moment that was hard for Trump to spin as a win. There was a famous, if anecdotal, response to the prolonged government closures captured by the New York Times.
“I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this,” said one woman who was furloughed during the shutdown. “I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”
In the run-up to the election, Trump was holding rallies on a near-daily basis, verbally hurting the right people. Then his party lost and then he picked a fight over a border wall that, at best, he framed as a tie.
Objective reality suggests that Trump’s record has been mixed. But that’s not what he promised. So objective reality becomes “fake news.” Trump’s low approval numbers become strong ones, the best in years, based on one day of polling that’s now more than a month old.
Trump’s apparent fear is that the house of cards will start to wobble. From a personal standpoint, it would be an unwelcome development. From a political one, he clearly thinks, it would spell doom.