September 7, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Two simple reasons why Trump’s approval rating never changes

The voters who constitute his floor and his ceiling.

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The percentage of the electorate that approves of the president’s performance has barely budged since he took office. How can that be? That’s one of the thorny and infuriating questions of his presidency. It doesn’t matter what he does. It doesn’t matter what he does not do. Donald Trump’s job approval has remained steady, around 40 percent, give or take a few points, according to FiveThirtyEight’s poll aggregator. It might not be as thorny and infuriating, however, once you give it some thought. The reason nothing changes is because nothing else about Trump has changed either.

I’ll explain.

The most cynical explanation has the most common currency unfortunately. The president dominates every news cycle with lies, scandal and disinformation. The electorate has become both immune to controversy and inured to outrage. This is the most frequent view among members of the press corps, whose job it is to pay attention to all things Trump, which is the reason why many of them are so cynical. This is why Politico’s Jake Sherman wondered if anyone outside Washington cared about the Republican National Convention’s nationally televised violation of the Hatch Act.

It could be we’re all desensitized and nothing matters, or it could be that most of us have made up our minds, and little or nothing is going to change it.

Citizens do care. Sherman got shellacked for being such a nihilist. But Sherman had a point if the president’s job approval is any indication. Every government bureaucrat involved in staging a political convention on the White House lawn broke federal law many times over. Yet Trump’s job approval is steady. According to FiveThirtyEight (as of this writing), it’s 43.5 percent. A crime-in-progress didn’t change a damn thing.

Same goes for the pandemic. More than 193,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 as of this writing, per Worldometer. That’s about 64 times the death toll of Sept. 11, 2001. That’s about 48,250 times the death toll of Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012. In fact, more Americans have died from the new coronavirus than from fighting in all foreign wars since the Korean War. We will probably reach 200,000 by Election Day, 250,000 by Inauguration Day, half a million by 2021’s midpoint. If the Trump administration had done a mediocre job, not a great job, of handling the pandemic, about 145,000 fewer Americans would be dead, according to analysis today by the Times’ David Leonhardt. Yet here we are. Negligent homicide isn’t enough to sink Trump below 40 percent.

Some have noted Trump is impervious to economics, too. They point to George W. Bush’s second term when his approval slid as the economy slid into a financial panic sparking the near decade-long Great Recession. Last week was the first time in 23 weeks in which weekly unemployment claims dropped below 1 million. About 22 million jobs were lost between February and April. Half haven’t come back, according to the Post. The pandemic is now spreading rapidly into 22 rural states in the south and midwest, places where Trump’s support is strongest. (Cases rose by 126 percent in South Dakota over two weeks, according to Reuters.) Meanwhile, parents are jammed between the need to send kids to school and the need to earn a living. Trump seems to be the exception to economic forces that didn’t spare the last Republican president.

Given the simplest explanations are usually the best, I offer two. One, Trump isn’t feeling what Bush felt, because he’s running for reelection. Many GOP partisans are willing to eat pretty much any outrage to prevent a Democrat from winning the White House. These voters, I contend, constitute the president’s floor. His approval rating won’t go any lower than it has been until he’s reelected. By then, perhaps we’ll know what Trump supporters really think of death-by-Covid. Until then, they’ll fake it.

The second explanation is simpler. It may be that most of the electorate made up its mind some time ago, perhaps as far back as Trump’s Inaugural Address, during which he made clear that he’d be a Republican, not an American, president. I’m guessing these voters decided who they’d vote for in 2020 by Feb. 1, 2017, or soon afterward. These voters, I contend, constitute the president’s ceiling. It doesn’t matter what he does. It doesn’t matter what he does not do. He will never attain majority approval.

It could be we’re all desensitized and nothing matters, or it could be that most of us have made up our minds, and little or nothing is going to change it. Indeed, as things get worse, our mindsets are only hardened. The more the president talks about “law and order,” the more we’re reminded of his lawlessness. The more he talks about violence, the more we’re reminded he’s inciting it. The more he brags about the economy, the more we’re reminded he’s ruined pretty much everything. Time will tell if I’m wrong, but this is better than the more complex, more nihilist perspectives.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

6 Comments

  1. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    I’m getting very tired of tr$mp and think the House should impeach him again immediately . I wonder if my ballot will ever arrive. It’s said they were mailed out in NC last Friday. John, your column as usual is outstanding. Thank you.

  2. Dave Mikulec on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    The one’s I’ve met, including members of my own family support him because he confirms their biases. He hates the same things they do. And all of that hate is pounded into their heads on a daily basis by a vast host of online scam-artists on Youtube and Twitter.

  3. hw on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    I would disagree with one statement. Trump is NOT a Republican president. Perhaps he is the inevitable outcome of years of Republican policies, but Trump is an un-American president…he holds no American values, he is contemptuous of the rule of law and all civil rights…he respects neither workers nor troops…he is uninterested in the fate of the country or its citizens. The real question is whether the electorate wants to retain a country because Trump’s end goal is not to be an authoritarian leader…his end goal is to surpass Putin in wealth and hold unrestrained power over others. If that means selling portions of the country to China or Russia, Trump would happily do so. Many Trump supporters, including the 1%, live in the moment….where they are on the winning team, climate change is a future problem, and there are no consequences for lawlessness. They lack the ability to perceive Trump’s true endgame. The worse the situation becomes, the more committed they must be, otherwise they would be forced to acknowledge the depths of their own depravity and willful ignorance. Similarly, our media continues to ignore the reality of fascism, normalizing Trump’s behavior, and collectively buying into the mythology that they will somehow avoid the fate of the free press in every authoritarian state. Finally. we have the utter failure of Democratic leadership to respond to an authoritarian coup with even the smallest of speedbumps. Instead of focusing on LatinX turnout in Florida, Pelosi directed $20M to keep the ineffective and donor-beholden Rich Neal in office. There are many intersecting forces that have brought us to this point in time. I had hoped against hope that we’d see a dozen or so whistleblowers at the 11th hour, but even that frail hope has died. Early voting has started and only 2 DHS former employees have stood up. In years to come, if Trump is reelected, many will say they never expected X,Y, or Z to happen. The response is that it doesn’t matter what they expected. Once the door was opened to Trumpism, everything that happens thereafter is a logical result of their actions or inactions, whether or not foreseeable. The same response given to former Nazis who ‘never thought it would come to this’.

  4. Steve on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    I think the single largest factor here is that at least a third of America lives in a parallel and fact-free universe, victims of coordinated misinformation spoon fed to them (and vast viewerships) day after day by grinning arsonists who are paid fortunes to burn down their own country. As Elizabeth Warren succinctly puts it, “hate for profit”. They have no need to face unpleasant facts about corruption or COVID or anything. They just need to turn on Fox and feel comfy in their alternate reality bubble. If America does not dismantle misinformation, misinformation will dismantle America.

  5. Professor Bigfoot on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    His floor and his ceiling are both made up almost entirely of white people who don’t believe that Black people should be accepted as full fellow-citizens.

    The real question is, *are they a majority of white people?* (i needn’t point out that he won white people and ONLY white people in 2016, right?)

  6. David Collins on July 30, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    Actually, it may be simpler than that, John. Trump’s firehose of lies and scandals all blend together into a normalized background noise that stays constant, and shortens the news cycle. It’s only a couple days before we’re onto the next lie/scandal. Couple this with people’s shortened attention spans and fading memories, and the lies/scandals do not accumulate as you would think they should. I saw Mary Trump mention her frustration with this non-cumulative phenomenon in one of her interviews. It’s only when you have a confluence of stories in the news for more than a few days, that you see Trump’s ratings budge. It took the combination of increasing infections, George Floyd’s murder, and ensuing protests all at the same time and being covered for weeks to have a cumulative effect that tanked Trump’s approval. Now that death rates are decreasing and the George Floyd protests are ‘distant’ memories, we revert back to the mean of steady background noise. Hopefully this Atlantic story and subsequent confirming and follow up claims will stay in the news for a while. Malcom Gladwell’s excellent “Talking to Strangers” spends a good deal on ‘The Truth Default Theorem’ which posits that people will always default to trusting someone until they are presented with enough evidence that they can no longer explain away. As long as Fox or Breitbart is around to sooth their doubts, they will always revert back to trusting Trump.

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