Trump Deserves a Nobel Prize -- in Physics
After last week – heck, after the last year-and-a-half -- it’s difficult to know where Donald Trump is heading. It’s conceivable, given the latest news about a certain former Playboy centerfold, that we’ll see the first White House divorce. If his enemies have their way, he’ll be the third U.S. president impeached – and the second hounded from office. Given his age, diet, and unorthodox views about exercise, a heart attack isn’t out of the question, either, although the president would certainly prefer Dwight Eisenhower’s medical experience to Warren Harding’s.
Then again, perhaps Trump’s future is as a Nobel laureate. I don’t mean the peace prize, which Barack Obama won on spec and some Trump fans have mentioned in relation to his North Korea disarmament talks. I mean the Nobel in physics. He seems to be the first human being who’s learned to defy the rules of gravity. “What goes up, must come down,” Isaac Newton taught the world. But Newton never met Trump. No matter what he says or does – and no matter what’s said to him or about him – the man’s poll numbers hang in suspended animation. It’s as if the famous apple in Newton’s garden fell from the tree and just hung there above his head.
Take last week, for example. On Sunday, Trump got involved in a Twitter war of words with Iran’s Main Mullah, a.k.a. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The two leaders apparently were trying to sound like tough guys. Instead, it sounded like two small boys in detention playing nanny-nanny boo-boo, which would be funny if they didn’t have large standing armies at their disposal. That made it harrowing.
On Monday, Trump responded to revelations about the FBI’s wiretaps on former campaign aide Carter Page by reprising his description of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation as “the discredited Mueller Witch Hunt.” He retaliated against his cable news critics – at least those who once worked for the government – by threatening to revoke their security clearances. Tuesday’s headlines in the New York Times were that the president was “enraged” when Melania had the television set tuned to CNN on an Air Force One trip. Meanwhile, White House officials announced a $12 billion aid package to U.S. farmers hurt in the trade war Trump started.
On Wednesday, Trump’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was destroyed with a pickaxe, no doubt by a liberal apostle of tolerance. That afternoon, Trump’s communications aides banned a CNN reporter from an open Rose Garden press conference with the leader of the European Union because they didn’t like a question she asked earlier in the day. This did not generate positive media coverage. Thursday was the court-mandated deadline for reuniting migrant families separated by administration border policy. The media treatment of that event? Parents were “disoriented and overwhelmed,” their kids “traumatized,” CNN dutifully reported.
All in all, it was a typical week for this White House. How did the electorate respond? Trump’s poll numbers ticked upward. On Sunday, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Trump’s job approval rating had risen to 45 percent, the highest of his presidency in that survey.
On Tuesday, Gallup reported that Trump’s sixth quarter was his best, in terms of how Americans graded his performance in office. The next day, American Barometer, a poll done jointly by The Hill newspaper and HarrisX, put Trump’s approval rating at 48 percent.
What’s going on here? The pollsters involved in these surveys offered some pithy thoughts, as did other political commentators asked to decipher this riddle. Some mentioned a couple of important caveats. First, Trump is still underwater: More Americans do not approve of his job performance than those who do. Second, his numbers aren’t all that much higher than they’ve been.
“Actually,” says Brookings Institution scholar William A. Galston, “the RealClearPolitics average shows no movement for the past three months, after a substantial recovery from last fall’s low.” Galston believes that when all the polls are in, Trump’s universally panned Helsinki dance with Vladimir Putin will shave a point or two off his popularity.
American Enterprise Institute political analyst Karlyn Bowman also points out that Trump’s job approval is mostly mired in the low to mid-40s, which wouldn’t be high enough if this were 2020. But Bowman also suggests that he’s impervious to traditional gravitational norms.
“I can’t prove this directly by the polls,” she said, “but it is my strong sense that [his supporters] tuned out to the day-to-day developments involving Trump long ago and thus aren’t moved by a Helsinki performance or a [difficult] meeting with Theresa May or NATO leaders.”
HarrisX CEO Dritan Nesho – the proprietor of the outlier poll putting Trump at 48 percent – says that no matter how many hits the president has taken on recent events such as the Helsinki debacle and the mess on the border, he is being bolstered by a wave of optimism on the economy and support for him on other issues as well.
Fred Yang, one of the pollsters who conducted the NBC-Wall Street Journal surveys, was more blunt. “The more Trump gets criticized by the media,” he said, “the more his base seems to rally behind him.”
Now there’s a weird brand of jujitsu, and it understandably chafes the ladies and gentlemen of the Fourth Estate, many of whom tear their hair out while thinking something along these lines, “We keep pointing out this man’s myriad screw-ups, and it reminds you of why you voted for this nut in the first place?”
“My suspicion is that what we regard as ‘screw-ups’ are either irrelevant, which many are, or they are not only not screw-ups, but the very reason he was elected,” said Republican political consultant Alex Castellanos. Although he’s been critical of Trump and the GOP’s response to the president, Castellanos understands the electorate’s impulse to alter the political status quo in this country. “They didn’t vote for [Trump] despite knowing he was a living hand grenade,” he continued. “No, they voted for him because he was a living hand grenade -- and that’s exactly what they wanted to roll under Washington’s door.”
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said that while’s it’s not always true that Trump’s missteps help his poll numbers, it often is true. She’s has explored this phenomenon in her surveys to try and comprehend it. “His base gets united and energized,” she found. “They blame the media for nitpicking.” This is especially true, she says, among Republican women, whose support is sometimes less deep than that of male conservatives. But when he’s attacked? These women rally to his side, she said.
“He has redefined everything about American politics,” public opinion guru Frank Luntz told me. “He has redefined political loyalty. He has redefined political language. He has redefined polling. Nothing is as it was. And it will never be the same.”
Luntz added that he’s heard many people say that the 45th U.S. president has re-written the rules of politics. “I don’t think that’s accurate,” he added. “Since Donald Trump took the stage in 2015, there are no rules.”
Not even the law of gravity.