In June of 1974, with the Watergate scandal exploding and President Richard Nixon’s approval ratings in the high 20s, the New York Timesran an article that interviewed rural, conservative whites in Holdrege, Nebraska, about their feelings toward the president. These respondents were fierce supporters of Nixon and did not like the way the political system was treating him. The quotes may sound familiar today:
“I can’t believe there’s one dirty thing wrong with Richard Nixon…. Some people did some awful wrong things at Watergate, but you’ll never convince me that Nixon knew of them. Now you talk about dishonesty. What about all those votes the Democrats always steal in Chicago?”
“I’m just not going to believe the president is wrong until he’s convicted. I don’t have that much faith in the news media any more.”
“You can see the gleam in those TV reporters’ eyes when they have bad news.”
“I can’t understand why some people suddenly expect politics to be conducted in a church-like atmosphere. It never has been before.”
“Those Eastern liberals, try to make their political beliefs seem so sophisticated just because they’re liberal, but they blast and nit‐pick so much it sounds like propaganda now.”
You’ll hear the same defenses today of Donald Trump. Trump, of course, gave an outlandish news conference last week in which he bizarrely claimed that intelligence services were leaking classified information that was fake, falsely boasted he won the presidency by one of the largest electoral college margins in modern history, criticized a Jewish reporter for asking about rising anti-Semitism, and suggested to an African-American reporter that she help set up a meeting between him and the Congressional Black Caucus, among other things. Many reporters and political observers were taken aback by his performance, but some conservative commentators insisted that it played well among Trump’s base.
CNN’s Jeffrey Lord said, “I honestly think what you miss here in that out here in the countryside, as it were, he comes across as being very candid, very dedicated to the job, very in command.” The Daily Mail’s David Martosko insisted that reporters’ concerns during the press conference were “what 3/4 of the press corps whispered at every Trump press conference. Didn’t matter. Regular people loved it.” The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin declared, “Trump’s detractors immediately panned the show as madness, but they missed the method behind it and proved they still don’t understand his appeal.”
The overall tone of these defenses is really of a piece with that of the Nixon defenses back in ’74. Basically, the mainstream media thinks it knows better but is out of touch, Trump’s base still likes him, what people see as chaos is actually what’s great about him, Democratic crimes and abuses are being ignored, etc.
Now, the basic idea — that Trump’s supporters still support Trump — is in one sense a completely meaningless tautology. A more generous interpretation might be that the people who helped elect him last year are still supporting him now. But what does that really teach us? Trump’s views and behavior were on full display throughout 2016. If none of that was disqualifying for you then, it’s probably not now either.
Besides, of what value is it to just retain one’s base? President Obama had an 81 percent approval rating among Democrats in 2010, the same year his party took an epic pounding in congressional and state legislative races. And as the article cited above noted, Nixon certainly had his share of enthusiastic supporters even when the press was most critical of him. But the overall public had turned against him, and when members of Congress of both parties followed, he knew he couldn’t govern anymore.
The fact remains that Trump entered office with a lower approval rating than any other modern president has, and it’s been dropping ever since. He’s losing support. Even if he maintains the support of Republicans, he has the lowest approval ratings among independents and adherents to the other party ever recorded at this point in a presidency. He has demonstrated bizarre behavior and pressed anti-democratic messages with each new day, and it’s hurting him.
Even the worst leader will have an approval rating above zero, and it will always be possible for a reporter to find some voters who still enthusiastically support him and resent the media’s tone. But what is the use of such a story? Whom does it educate? Are we to presume that the people “in the countryside,” to use Lord’s words, are privy to some knowledge about politics that the rest of us lack? That their perspective is so virtuous that it should outweigh that of the majority of their fellow citizens?
If a president demonstrates himself to be unfit for office, unaware of how to do the job, or hostile to the very concept of democracy, that’s a far more relevant story than “his supporters still support him.”