By Sam Wolfe
In an early display of his prescient political instincts, Donald Trump boasted at a campaign rally in Iowa that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing support.
In a sense, his campaign was an exuberantly fought challenge to this early hypothesis. At times throughout 2016, the media’s arsenal of preferred adjectives — reckless, damaging, dangerous — felt insufficient. Trump’s utter failure to maintain a stretch of positive press was, in part, a product of the media’s obsessive desire to paint his every action as irredeemably evil, but was also an accurate reflection of Trump’s mercurial nature, his undisciplined approach to political campaigning and his unfalteringly caustic response to criticism.
His malefactions included (but, God knows, were scarcely limited to) insulting John McCain for being a POW, insinuating that Megyn Kelly’s belligerence was a result of her period and dredging up a particularly unsavory feud with Alicia Machado at 3 a.m., his advisors presumably deep asleep.
And nobody could forget the nadir of the whole affair, the moment that had the press utterly convinced that Trump was sunk — the Access Hollywood tape, a campaign artifact so unapologetically ugsome that it has its own Wikipedia page.
And what now? Why, Trump has fired FBI Director James Comey, for seemingly little reason other than a distaste for the man and his refusal to declare loyalty to the president and his insistence that the allegations of collusion with the Russian government against the Trump campaign be fully investigated.
On one reading, this is unbelievable idiocy from the Trump administration. I have no idea who the advisers were who told Trump that this would look fine, but he should probably immediately fire them.
On another reading, though, it was a bad move, but one that will go down as further evidence that Trump’s support is nigh-untouchable. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 29 percent of Americans agreed with Trump’s decision to fire Comey, with 38 percent disapproving, and an additional 32 percent having no opinion. Independents disapproved of his behavior by a 15-point margin.
This seems like a win for the mainstream media, who have taken Trump to task over this story, until one inspects the numbers more closely. A mere 8 percent of Republicans disapprove of Trump’s actions, a number more than offset by the bizarre 9 percent of Democrats who approve. (Presumably Clinton diehards who are still, still, with Her.)
The poll’s even more striking finding is that Trump’s approval rating has not changed in the wake of this scandal. While the media screams “Watergate!”, voters shrug. I have written before about how thoroughly neutered the media has become over the last few years, but this is truly something else. Even the aforementioned campaign indiscretions delivered a short-term shock to Trump’s popularity. This time, not so.
Why? I have a few explanations. The first is an argument I’ve made before, but that is worth making again — that the media eroded a lot of its credibility when it indiscriminately sounded the alarm on Trump’s behavior throughout 2016, instead of reserving their outrage for his truly abysmal moments.
The second is a kind of Trump fatigue, where voters no longer much care if Trump behaves immaturely and/or despotically (depending on your reading of the president). This would involve voters, in full understanding of the president’s flaws, deciding that they either back the president or they don’t. For these voters, Trump has normalized abnormality.
The third is the oft-repeated narrative about media bubbles. This argument says that the ever-growing smorgasbord of media sources to choose from allows voters to shut out opposing views. I find this explanation partially compelling, but not entirely so; if this were the case, I wouldn’t expect to see the disjunction between independents’ widespread disapproval of Trump’s behavior and his static approval rating. Such independents have clearly consumed news sources critical of Trump, but, in line with explanations 1 or 2 above, can’t bring themselves to share the media’s level of anger.
Can anything break the circuit? I am pessimistic. I think that the media will continue to be drawn along by perverse market incentives and continue to erode its long term credibility, while Trump, barring an “oh shit, we just found out that Putin is Trump’s brother”-level scandal, will remain largely untouched. Perhaps widespread dissent from Republican lawmakers would tilt the balance, but they have had ample opportunity to come out against Trump, and, again, barring a catastrophic scandal, probably have no incentive to.
Trump may not have had enough wins to be sick of winning yet, but he appears unable to truly, meaningfully lose. Whether you’re a moderate, a proud deplorable or an antifa dissident, this should worry you.
Contact Sam Wolfe at swolfe2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.