When the president speaks, does it really matter? By the end of the first half of Donald Trump’s first term in office, a growing body of evidence suggested that the counterintuitive answer to this question was no.
A Public Affairs Council/Morning Consult poll released in October of 2018 quantified this reality. That survey found that 60 percent of Americans almost never had any contact with the president’s often baiting and provocative Tweets. When Trump goes on a tangent attacking a company or media personality that happened to offend him, 80 percent indicated they either didn’t understand the feud or simply didn’t care enough about it to change their own opinions.
That indifference is reflected in public data reported by companies that find themselves under withering assault by the president’s manic online persona. From Nordstrom to the New York Times, getting on the president’s bad side doesn’t necessarily give way to deleterious consequences. The president is easily ignored.
This has led some to the conclusion that Trump’s erratic and aggressive behaviors both online and off won’t have measurable political consequences for him or his party. His often inexplicable personal conduct has become background radiation for many dedicated political observers. The president’s regular abuses of the public trust are often written off by his most dedicated fans as monomaniacal derangement. But just because this is a routine feature of daily life doesn’t mean that Americans have grown more tolerant of it. Trump’s addiction to aggression has likely contributed to the precarious political position in which he finds himself.
Case in point is the president’s abhorrent crusade to resurrect the conspiracy theory that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was somehow involved in the 2001 death of Lori Klausutis, a staffer in one of the former congressman’s field offices. There is no evidence to substantiate Trump’s demand that authorities open a “cold case” file targeting the morning show host, nor is there any indication Trump is interested in the pursuit of justice. He’s simply dredging up this tragedy because he’s annoyed with Scarborough. If the MSNBC host was less critical of him, Trump’s interest in this affair would cease to exist. But this isn’t just another controversy. It’s part of a phenomenon that is having a compounding effect.
The president’s effort to leverage one family’s tragedy for personal gain leaped off Twitter’s infinite scroll and has become a real-world controversy. Klausutis’s sympathetic widower has made a public appeal to the social-media outlet, requesting that it limit the president’s capacity to exacerbate his family’s anguish. Conservative venues such as National Review have excoriated Trump for engaging in a “petty” “deception” that is “unworthy of a partisan blogger, let alone the president of the United States.” Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger savaged the president for “creating paranoia” that “will destroy us,” suggesting there are limits to Trump’s capacity to destroy the members of his political party who criticize him. This is no longer a “Twitter controversy.”
Nor is this the first time in recent weeks that the president’s reckless social-media habits have gotten him into trouble. Trump has elevated, via his twitter account, dedicated “QAnon” conspiracy theorists. He has promoted the notion that “Barack Obama was the one running the Russian hoax.” He rages in the direction of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai with the suggestion that the regulatory body should shut down broadcast network hosts with whom he disagrees. He goes about calling Kellyanne Conway’s husband “moonface.”
Nor are these antics limited to social media. The president has attacked two female reporters who asked pointed questions of him by saying they failed to live up to 1950s-era stereotypes of how women should conduct themselves. He has speculated about the viability of human exposure to ultraviolet light and the “injection” of disinfectants as potential COVID-19 treatments.
Against this backdrop, the president has experienced one of the shallowest and shortest-lived pandemic-related job-approval rating bumps in the Western world. The average of recent polling suggests Trump is deep underwater, a position he has occupied for most of his presidency. Early but relevant polling of the general election between Trump and Joe Biden indicates that the president will have a difficult time retaining even the 46 percent of voters who backed him in 2016. The gap between the president and his presumptive opponent is also stable despite the dramatic change in the country’s fortunes since the start of 2020.
It’s telling that these data are so resistant to dramatic swings in one direction or the other. Even amid a public health disaster and an economic calamity, Trump’s ratings are about the same as they were in the absence of those conditions.
Donald Trump’s conduct forces observers to wonder whether he is trustworthy at a time when trust in public officials is of paramount importance. But even in the pre-pandemic age, amid economic growth at home and good fortunes abroad, Trump’s personal conduct contributed to a hard ceiling on his support.
Trump’s behavior matters. If that conduct proves his political undoing in November, his diehard supporters will be tempted to blame exogenous factors beyond the president’s control. And they will be kidding themselves.