Then Jan. 6 happened: Political supporters convinced by Trump that the 2020 election was stolen and encouraged by him to come to Washington, overran the U.S. Capitol in an effort to block the finalization of President Biden’s electoral victory. Trump was muted in the days after the attack and then muted literally by the social media tools on which he’d come to rely. He left the White House two weeks later with a low-energy speech and one final fist pump.
And yet! Even with Trump out of frame, he still manages to attract more attention than past presidents — and, by some metrics, the current one.
The Internet is new enough that comparing this moment to ones past is a bit tricky. Google does provide public data on search interest going back to 2004, which allows us to see how interest in the presidents has evolved over time.
George W. Bush got some interest in 2004. Then Barack Obama came along and blew that away. And then Trump showed up.
This doesn’t tell us specifically about the interest in presidents after they leave office. So let’s zoom in to the month before and after each transition of power since 2009.
We can see that, both before and after Obama’s 2009 inauguration, he was getting a lot more interest on Google than Bush. In 2017, far more people were searching for information about Trump. But in January, when Joe Biden took over for Trump, there was about as much interest in the outgoing as the incoming executive.
There were reasons for this. The violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and the eventual trial in the Senate following Trump’s impeachment led to spikes in search interest for Trump. Even before that, though, Trump was outperforming Biden, which hadn’t happened in the prior two transitions.
For other measures of interest, we have an even more limited set of data. GDELT analyzes online news sources to determine how much attention subjects are getting. In the period surrounding the 2017 presidential inauguration (when GDELT’s tool had just gone online), Trump got more mentions in monitored articles than did Obama. This year, Trump and Biden are running about even.
Again, this is probably due to two overlapping factors. The first is that Trump is staying in the news by virtue of the aforementioned events. The second is that Biden predicated his presidential campaign on not seeking out attention in the same way that Trump does.
By another metric, the transition in 2021 looks like that in 2017. Stanford’s Cable TV News Analyzer runs facial recognition algorithms on cable news broadcasts collected by the Internet Archive. In the weeks after the inauguration, Biden was shown on-air more often than Trump, just as Trump was seen more on-air after his own inauguration.
But when considering how often each president was mentioned on cable news, things shift. Both before and after his inauguration, Trump was a subject of far more conversation on-air than Obama. With almost the sole exception of the day of the inauguration itself, Trump has also been the subject of more on-air chatter in the past few months, too.
That big spike on the second chart above is because Trump was being tried for impeachment in the Senate. Seven members of his own party decided that Trump’s actions surrounding the Jan. 6 violence warranted barring him from ever again holding public office, a historic rebuke of the former president.
But, hey. At least they were talking about him.