The night after President Trump’s win in the 2016 election, he was at home in Trump Tower — and probably not too eager to head outside. He probably couldn’t see the surrounding streets from his penthouse windows, but he might have been able to hear the crowds filling them: a spontaneous and uproarious gathering serving as catharsis for the many voters in the city for whom the outcome was not what was hoped. (That includes the precinct around Trump Tower itself, which Trump lost by 38 points.)
It was one of the last times since then that Trump would have to deal with a hostile crowd, thanks to his aggressive embrace of a hyperfriendly political bubble.
On Thursday morning, we saw one of the rare exceptions. Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited the Supreme Court to pay their respects to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice who died last week. When Trump emerged from the building, within view of the assembled crowd, a rumble of opposition emerged. Soon, it became a chant: “Vote him out.” Trump was probably thankful that, for once, he was wearing a mask; no reaction was visible on his face.
Other incidents in which he’s faced public opprobrium can be counted on one hand: boos at his inauguration, boos at a Nationals baseball game last year and, again, at a UFC event a few days later, and, unusually, boos after disparaging the press at an international summit in Switzerland in 2018. Beyond that, opposition manifested directly to Trump’s face is rare precisely because he rarely gets his face in front of hostile critics.
It’s tricky to overstate the extent to which Trump generally operates in a sphere where criticism is limited or rare. The White House has been largely purged of people who are willing to buck Trump, by his own design. His travel heavily skews toward either his private properties — where the other people have paid to be in his presence — or to campaign rallies crowded with supporters. During his trips to and from those appearances, he can often see critics along the side of the road, people bearing signs or elevating particular fingers to make their feelings known. But the car simply zips past them.
There are more traditional presidential appearances that Trump makes, though those, too, are tightly constrained. When he visited Wisconsin in the wake of violent protests earlier this month, his interactions with the public were limited to prescreened individuals. When he’s greeted at airports, it’s by people chosen to greet him. There’s an obvious safety factor at play, but that hasn’t prevented past presidents from interacting directly with the public — or past vice presidents, for that matter.
Perhaps the most infamous example of this was Trump’s visit to St. John’s Episcopal Church, across the street from the White House, in June. Shortly before Trump made the trip, the plaza between the two locations was filled with protesters expressing their opposition to the president. Federal law enforcement swept through with riot shields, batons and pepper spray, clearing the area — and allowing Trump and his aides to head over unmolested.
It’s important to note that Trump’s isolation from criticism doesn’t end at his physical environment. The president has created a psychological bubble as well, one in which his presidency is viewed with approval by a majority of the country. Every few weeks, he’ll share a graphic on social media elevating polling from a pollster like Rasmussen Reports showing his approval at or above 50 percent, often with a caption like, “Working hard, thank you!” In reality, his approval rating has never been higher than about 46 percent in averages of various polls. He’ll claim that his approval among Republicans is 96 percent, a number that’s simply invented.
In this same data bubble, Trump’s standing in presidential polls is much better than public polls would suggest. Part of this is probably a function of his relying on internal campaign polling, which likely includes questions shifting respondents’ opinions. Earlier this year, he also presented some public polls to a Post columnist as evidence of how well he was doing — polls that offered results that should be consumed with large grains of salt.
Among them were polls conducted for One America News, an overtly pro-Trump network that has been jockeying with Fox News for Trump’s attention. Its strategy for doing so has been to excise even minor Trump criticisms from its coverage, leveraging moments when Trump gets frustrated by things like interviews of Democratic legislators on Fox News to present themselves as a friendlier alternative.
But Trump’s loyalty to Fox News is still robust. The president has given far more interviews to the network than to any of its competitors, largely because he knows that he generally won’t face probing follow-up questions. (His recent interviews with Axios and ABC News didn’t go terribly well.) Trump also spends a great deal of time watching Fox News and its sister network, Fox Business, a choice he makes because its coverage of the president is as generous to him as its interviews.
So it must be jarring when Trump actually comes face-to-face with Americans who make up the majority of the country that disapproves of his presidency and views him unfavorably. It’s unfortunate for Trump that his real estate empire is centered in New York City and the White House in Washington, large cities with heavily Democratic populations. Every so often, he’s going to have to deal with the people in his neighborhoods that don’t really like him.
It appears to be important to Trump and his team that the facade of his overwhelming support be maintained. When the White House social media account shared a snippet of video — from Fox News — showing Trump’s arrival at the Supreme Court, the clip ended before Fox’s audio feed picked up the booing.
Watch that clip and you’d think that no one expressed any opposition to Trump’s appearance. Which is exactly what Trump would like you to believe.