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On Trump’s stable approval numbers and today’s tribalized media landscape

The president’s approval ratings are both very bad and very stable, which suggests that very few Americans are changing their minds about him.

The reality is that the latest numbers confirm what has been happening almost since the day Donald Trump took office, which is that very few people are changing their minds about him.
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Gallup published its weekly update of President Trump’s approval rating yesterday, showing him “under water,” as he has been throughout his presidency, with 39 percent approval and 55 percent disapproval.

The very slight change from a week earlier is that both numbers went down by one percentage point from the previous reading of 40/56.

You could, if you felt like torturing the numbers to wreak some meaning from them, convince yourself that a tiny portion of both previous approvers and disapprovers have entered “don’t know/not sure” territory for some reason, but such tiny within-the-error-margin change would not really support such a conclusion.

The reality is that the latest numbers confirm what has been happening almost since the day Trump took office, which is that very few people are changing their minds (or should one say their “feelings”) about him. He continues to have historically awful approval numbers compared to most presidents during their first year (and now into a second year). But the numbers don’t get much better or much worse.

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The same is basically true if you rely (as I also do when I check in on the current incumbent’s approval numbers every month or so) on the Huffington Post’s average of many different approval polls. At the moment, HuffPost shows Trump at an average 52.7 disapproval/43.1 approval, slightly higher on the approval side than Gallup, but still deep in historically bad territory and showing very little movement from day or week or month-to-month.

To summarize, his approval ratings are both very bad and very stable, which suggests that very few Americans are changing their minds about him.

If this keeps up, it will also be historically unusual. It’s hard to compare 14 months of a presidency with the longer records of previous presidents, but most of Gallup’s historical approval numbers, which go back to Harry Truman, are much more volatile, reacting to major news developments with big ups and downs in approval/disapproval.

Trump does and says things constantly that strike me as likely to drive his numbers down. Then they don’t go down, or at least not much. (I’ll assume that those who like/trust/approve of him have the opposite reaction: that he’s doing so many great things that his numbers should be soaring. But they aren’t.)

It’s possible that the stability of Trump’s approval/disapproval numbers reflects one of the other big changes that has occurred over recent years in the sources of news or what we might call the Fox/MSNBC effect.

Ten days ago, the British paper, the Guardian, published a review of a recent book titled “The People versus Democracy” by Yascha Mounk, a German scholar now based at Harvard. Mounk argues that fundamental aspects of democracy are endangered by a breakdown, or three breakdowns that amount to what he calls “three crises,” which are undermining three fundamental pillars that support a healthy democracy.

Arguing not about Trump but about weaknesses in democracy around the world, Mounk says one of those pillars was that, in previous eras (as summarized by the Guardian):

The citizenry had a relatively similar worldview because broadcast news, newspapers, radio, and the like were all one-to-many forms of communication in which gatekeepers ensured that news and information remained within the mainstream. This meant that even diverse communities were part of a shared conversation based on shared facts.

(If you’d like to explore the other two of the “fundamental pillars,” they’re summarized in the Guardian piece.)

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But the change in the news media environment is something I think about a lot because, for example, I watch enough of both Fox and MSNBC to frequently wonder about anyone who is relying entirely on either of those networks for their information (although I have my own view of which of them is more open and honest about its facts).

I spent most of my career working for newspapers in the old “objective” news system. It had plenty of flaws, and I understand why many conservatives thought it was biased. But I also believe that a citizen who read the morning paper and watched the evening news got a much more balanced, more fact-oriented, less tribalized portrait of the world that made it easier for liberals and conservatives to coexist, compromise and even cooperate around common goals.

There’s no system that guarantees accuracy, fairness, open-mindedness about what is important and interesting. But I do worry that today’s media environment is rendering us nearly ungovernable.

Former Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan of New York is often credited with the axiom that “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.” Turns out (depending on what it means to be “entitled” to something) Moynihan was wrong.