I think Steve Kornacki is on the right track. He’s looking at the polling numbers for Trump and acknowledging that they look bad, but he’s noting that they also looked bad as election day drew near last year. In fact, the numbers then and now don’t really look much different. We all still want to know how Trump managed to win when most people thought he was unfit for the office. But we also need to ask whether he’s as strong today as he was last November when he was elected the president of the United States of America.
Kornacki speculates that one explanation for Trump’s success and the surprise associated with it is that Hillary Clinton was almost equally unpopular. Kornacki also wonders whether the media is so hated that their relentless moral condemnations of Trump only served to make him more popular. And, likewise, maybe the near unanimity with which our celebrity culture condemned Trump and the contemptuous way they talked about him and his supporters made him look good by comparison. Kornacki doesn’t mention it, but it’s also true that Congress is almost unimaginably unpopular, which makes anyone who picks a fight with them the likely winner.
I suspect all of this played a part and can help us understand our political culture a little better. People are simply underestimating how much the American people dislike our politicians, our media, and the Democrats’ message and messengers, which makes us wrongly conclude that these groups have more credibility and appeal than they do.
We look at Trump and see all his flaws clearly, but we tend to blame the people instead of ourselves when we’re confronted with our own unpopularity. The result is that we’re constantly startled to realize that when Trump does something awful it doesn’t accrue to anyone else’s benefit. In our country, right now, it could be that an approval rating in the mid-30’s is miraculously high rather than perilously low.
Relatedly, since no one is really any more popular than Trump, no one has the kind of credibility needed to make perceptions about Trump change for the worse and stick. Paul Ryan isn’t going to win a pissing match with the president, but neither apparently are the reporters at the Washington Post or the National Review. Susan Sarandon isn’t changing any minds, and neither is George Clooney. No matter how much people worry about the president, that doesn’t make them want to rush into the warm embrace of Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi.
If this theory is correct, Donald Trump remains unpopular but more popular than pretty much anyone or anything else.
Personally, I like this theory and think it has a lot of explanatory potential. But, if it is right, it means that our institutions have fallen into such disfavor that the the whole country and world has been endangered as a result. This has been part of a long-term conservative movement project but many of their members are now realizing that they went too far.
To be sure, a lot of this contempt has been well-earned. And I’ve participated in creating a lot of it myself. Our institutions have failed miserably over the last twenty years or so, especially during the Bush administration. But we might discover that the road back to national competency and self-respect must come through a rehabilitation of our institutions. That’s no easy trick, especially since most of them have never been more broken.
I guess one way to start is to focus on the positive a little more. For example, the media is far better today than it was in the pre-blog days of 2002.
Another way is to do much better when we get our next chance at governing.
One way or the other, we need something to be more credible and respected than Donald Trump. And it’s just not clear that that something currently exists.