Just two months into 2018, President Donald Trump is beset with scandals. His White House is more dysfunctional than ever. He’s used vulgar language to describe poor countries and faulted Barack Obama instead of Vladimir Putin for Russian meddling in the 2016 election. And he’s continued to lie about pretty much everything.
Yet his standing with the public hasn’t suffered a bit. His job-approval ratings actually rose a little.
The conventional explanation ascribes this to a strong economy and the growing popularity of Republican tax cuts. But the economy has been solid since the last few years of Obama’s presidency. And while the marketing campaign extolling the tax cuts has had success, the final verdict will depend on how the cuts affect voters, not what they are told.
Trump’s bulletproofing has less to do with transitory events than with his continuing ability to shape the terms of public debate. He reneged on an immigration deal, yet was able to shift the blame to Democrats. When credibly accused of cheating on his wife with a porn star, he just denies or diverts. With no conscience and few principles, he panders to paranoia.
When he succeeds, it’s by playing on the same resentments that got him elected: the anger of those voters who were already convinced that “elites,” Washington politicians, academics, the media and Wall Street don’t care about them.
The question is whether that kind of success is sustainable. I don’t think so. Trump’s job-approval rating remains historically bad. In November, the Democrats will probably win control of the House of Representatives, giving them power to investigate an ethically bankrupt administration. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators have put to rest any doubt that Russian operatives tried to help Trump win the election.
But Trump’s political support is likely to erode only gradually. Republican politicians are mostly sticking with him whatever their reservations, fearful of his unforgiving base. They see what happened to Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a principled conservative who spoke out against Trump and thereby wrote his political obituary. Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who announced his retirement in September after criticizing Trump, is now reconsidering and deciding whether to grovel for Trump’s blessing.
For interest groups focused predominantly on a conservative judiciary, or on big tax cuts, or on an immigration crackdown, being pro-Trump is smart. Even for much of the religious right, access and money beats professed values.
The Trump rank-and-file supports a lot of the same agenda. Trump has shown a savvy ability to create shrewd diversions. It’s a safe bet, for example, that few of the West Virginia miners who applaud his defense of coal realize that the Republican tax cuts are heavily tilted to corporations and the rich. Or that the administration is now proposing to cut back Medicare and Medicaid, which provide a lot of the money to treat their state’s profusion of opioid addicts.
On Russian interference in the presidential election, Trump creates alternative narratives. Sometimes he blames Obama, or supposedly left-leaning officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Sometimes he turns to sycophantic surrogates like Representative Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, to help cook up conspiracy theories.
His followers accept the diversionary tactics even when they see through them. To them, the particulars don’t matter as much as the sentiment: He’s standing up for us and sticking it to the elites. Democrats complain about the mangling of facts but haven’t succeeded in offering persuasive counter-narratives — the same failure that helped doom Hillary Clinton’s presidential run.
News organizations often play the role of unwitting Trump ally. A study of online campaign coverage by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University concluded last summer that “the right-wing media ecosystem,” especially Brietbart News and Fox News, were able to force mainstream outlets to report on their favored narratives. They pounced, for example, on controversies over the Clinton Foundation, fueled by a book by a Brietbart editor, producing coverage in the New York Times and elsewhere.
These outlets are small compared to the mainstream media, but they relentlessly pursue Trump’s agenda and are eager to echo his complaints about the FBI and to try to discredit sources of potentially harmful information like the British expert who compiled a dossier on Trump’s business ties to Russia. Their perspective often makes its way into the mainstream media in the name of balance, a journalistic habit the ideological media eschews. “We don’t get hung up on fairness,” the right-wing activist Grover Norquist likes to say.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.