OPED: Trump likely getting what he wants from polls

Francis Wilkinson
Bloomberg View (TNS)
President Donald Trump talks to reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., then on to Missouri. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

More than half of the voters in a new Fox News poll say President Donald Trump is “tearing the country apart.” For Trump, the main takeaway from that might be “so far, so good.”

Gallup polls have Trump’s job approval steadying at 34 percent to 35 percent since Aug. 20. While such numbers connote failure, they hardly guarantee it. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, among the 36 percent of the public that approves of Trump’s job performance (in the Pew poll), slightly more than half say they like his “personality” or “general approach.” Only 14 percent mention his policies or agenda.

In other words, Trump has a relatively narrow band of support, and a slim majority of that band explicitly approves of what many voters find objectionable: his personality and conduct. This is Trump’s base.

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Given partisan sorting, enough of those Trump fans live in Republican districts, and red states, to keep most Republican members of Congress from turning publicly against the president. (Though many still feel compelled to express “concern” about whatever his latest outrage is.)

While Trump’s overall approval is weak, Republican voters remain supportive of him, and he has placed himself at a nexus of rage that appears to be gaining strength. Neo-Nazis and Klansmen voiced support after Trump’s tacit vindication of racist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, (“some very fine people”). Fire-and-brimstone conservatives appreciated his ban on transgender military personnel, whom they wish to stigmatize and punish. And his pardon of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio sent a message not only to Trump allies tempted to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, but to everyone who resents the presence of Spanish speakers and cheers the abuse of prisoners or immigrants.

Some of the president’s supporters likewise hate the law professors, journalists, political scientists and other parts of the Never Trump universe who regularly denounce his behavior. As one 59-year-old poll respondent told Pew, he likes Trump “standing up to the New York and San Francisco privileged elitists.” In a 2017 Pew poll that conveys nothing about the value of education and much about the grudges of conservatives, a majority of Republicans said that colleges have a negative impact on the U.S., a reversal from conclusions from a similar survey taken before Trump’s campaign began.

Hating elite groups — at least those you don’t belong to — is not a policy. But it conveniently absolves Trump of the responsibility ever to acquire one. The limits of this political approach might appear obvious, but those limits are not fixed. Malice, like votes, can grow with proper nurturing.

In an interview with the Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein, Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson said she is losing faith in the GOP’s ability to resist.

“What has really shaken me in recent weeks is the consistency in polling where I see Republican voters excusing really bad things because their leader has excused them,” she told Brownstein.

Numerous polls suggest racial antipathy among strong Trump supporters runs high. The danger is that it won’t be contained there. Over the course of Trump’s 2016 Republican presidential campaign, the number of self-described Republicans who agreed that blacks face “a lot of discrimination” declined to 32 percent from 46 percent just the year before.

Either blacks made striking social, political and economic gains in 2016 or Republican empathy eroded as Trump waged a campaign of targeted malice, including frequent, grossly exaggerated references to violence in black neighborhoods.

“Empathy for one party is always prejudice against another,” Sen. Jeff Sessions said in 2009, in a concise and eloquent defense of the tribalism he now supports as Trump’s attorney general.

Key institutions, including the judiciary, continue to check Trump’s tribal howls. But after two years of attacks on the news media and just weeks after lethal white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville, the Fox News poll released this week found that 69 percent of Republican voters regarded the news media as a bigger threat to the nation than white supremacists.

In effect, just as Fox News increased demand for conservative news by increasing the supply, Trump is doing much the same with malice and resentment, juicing demand not only from his base but from Republican voters who might, under normal political circumstances, be resistant to similar demagogy — or at least quickly tire of it.

Trump’s success — and quite possibly his political survival — depends on reducing social trust. If there is one thing this erratic man does consistently and skillfully, it is work to make Americans less empathetic and trusting and more begrudging and resentful, toward their fellow citizens. It’s a distinct talent.

He plans to make the most of it.

— Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist. Readers may email him at