Trump Versus Biden? Maybe. Trump Versus the Media? Absolutely
The press has its lowest ratings in a crisis ever—and they walked right into it.
A new poll from Gallup reveals some of the contours of the 2020 presidential campaign, which are likely to stay in place, no matter what the ultimate impact of the current health crisis.
The March 25 poll asked Americans to give their approval/disapproval ratings for selected individuals and institutions in terms of their response to the coronavirus. Not surprisingly, U.S. hospitals were rated on top, with an 88 percent positive rating.
Meanwhile, President Trump was at 60 percent. Some will say that Trump’s approval rating is unimpressive, given that past crises—resulting in the rally-‘round-the-flag effect—have sent presidential ratings soaring into the 80s, even 90s. And that may well be true, although, of course, in so many ways, the Trump era has no precedent.
Moreover, we should be reminded that elections are relative; that is, it’s one candidate against the other candidate. And with that in mind, we can recall an old joke from Ronald Reagan, who knew a thing or two about elections: In the Gipper’s telling, two men are walking in the woods, and they come across a menacing bear—whereupon the first man bends down to put on his sneakers. And then the second man says, “Hey, you can’t outrun the bear!” To which the first man responds, “I don’t have to outrun the bear—I just have to outrun you!”
And that’s how elections work: Trump wasn’t popular in 2016, and yet he still managed to beat Hillary Clinton, because she was even more unpopular—at least in the key states. And as for 2020, yes, Trump is behind Joe Biden in the polls, and yet even so, one prominent betting site, PredictIt, shows Trump as the favorite to win a second term. Evidently, gamblers figure that a lot will happen between now and November 3—and who can disagree?
Still, Trump has a lot of work to do. And so let’s look again at that Gallup Poll, because it provides clues as to where Trump will go, looking for targets of opportunity, allowing him to say, in effect,You might not like me—but look at what’s worse.
For instance, there’s Congress, at 59 percent approval, a point lower than Trump’s.
Admittedly, a one-point differential isn’t much, but if the 2020 election is close, that single point could spell the difference between winning and losing.
With that in mind, it’s not hard to see Trump railing, as he long has been, against Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, et al. Indeed, if the Trump campaign knows past presidential history, it knows that back in the 1948 presidential election, a not-particularly popular incumbent, Harry Truman, chose mostly to ignore his actual Republican challenger, Thomas E. Dewey, preferring to run against the “Do Nothing” Republicans who controlled Congress. Yes, there was something deeply asymmetric about Truman’s campaign that year; the 33rd president was, in effect, running against a different branch of the federal government, namely, Congress—and yet it worked.Truman was re-elected.
So we can see the potential parallel today: Even if Biden is the nominee, Trump might choose to run against bicoastal liberals in Congress—and who’s to say that he can’t?
Yet Trump might look at that Gallup poll and conclude that he has an even better target than Congress, namely, the media. Just 44 percent of Americans approve of the Fourth Estate, and a massive 55 percent disapprove.
So now we can see the potential for some even more profound asymmetry: Trump could ignore elected officials and run, instead, against “fake news.” In fact, he’s already been doing that; we might ask ourselves: How many times has Trump attacked “lying media”? Nobody can count that high, but here’s a representative tweet, just from March 25:
The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success. The real people want to get back to work ASAP. We will be stronger than ever before!
Here we can see all the anti-media dynamics Trump might need for his re-election campaign: In his reckoning, the Mainstream Media are trying to sabotage the country, as a way of sabotaging his re-election campaign. (And Trump is hardly alone in his suspicions about the media; on March 29, Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted, “Some in our media can’t contain their glee & delight in reporting that the U.S. has more #CoronaVirus cases than #China.”)
Indeed, Trump’s daily White House press briefings have turned, by mutual agreement, into a ritualistic rumble–the president vs. the press.
So maybe the president can imagine putting together a two-part victory coalition: first, voters who like him; and second, voters who dislike the media.
As this author has noted here at TAC, that’s the playbook that Richard Nixon ran in 1972, albeit his administration’s media-bashing seems gentle by the standards of today. Still, Nixon won a second term in a landslide—and that’s an election that Trump himself is old enough to remember.
To be sure, Democrats remember 1972 as well, and that’s one reason why they shunned the George McGovernish Bernie Sanders in favor of the more centrist Biden. And yet a look back at history reminds us that media events have a way of intruding into the best-laid political plans.
For instance, 136 years ago, way back on October 29, 1884, a Presbyterian minister, Samuel Burchard, spoke at a New York City political dinner featuring the Republican presidential nominee, James G. Blaine. With just a week remaining in that year’s campaign, Burchard declared, “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been rum, Romanism and rebellion.” We should hasten to note that Burchard was just a private citizen, albeit one with the gift of alliteration. And yet in that alliterative triptych, Burchard managed to inflame just about every important Democratic group: “rum” (the Irish), “Romanism” (Catholics), and “rebellion” (the South).
Burchard’s words spread like a contagion; the following Sunday they were recited in Catholic churches across New York City. And in the November election, Blaine lost New York State, as the GOP lost the presidency for the first time in 28 years. As a rueful Blaine said later, “I should have carried New York by 10,000 votes if the weather had been clear and Dr. Burchard had been doing missionary work in Asia Minor or China.”
More recently, and increasingly, the liberal media have found themselves being part of the political story—and not always in a way that helps Democrats. For instance, on February 1, 1993, a Washington Post reporter, Michael Weisskopf, wrote that Christian voters were “largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command.”
These words were immediately seized upon, and “owned,” by the Christian Right, and by Republicans overall. And the following year, spearheaded in many places by angry evangelicals, the GOP took over the House and the Senate. It would be a vast stretch to say that a single nasty quote did the trick for the GOP, and yet even the most casual observer knows that such media contempt for Christians is common. And so in an almost biblical way, contempt begot counter-contempt, and that’s how we got to our current state of polarization, red vs. blue.
Indeed, in our time, the MSM hits keep coming. We might recall that in January a primetime CNN segment—not involving any elected Democrat—dissolved into a cackle-fest at the expense of Trump supporters. The conservative response to the segment was swift: “What Don Lemon and Rick Wilson reveal about the ruling class”—that was the headline in The Washington Examiner. And the Republican National Committee immediately ran a spot putting the burden of media nastiness on Democrats: “They think you’re a joke. Prove them wrong in November.”
And what was the headline that The New York Times ran atop an op-ed on March 27? Oh yes: “The Road to Coronavirus Hell Was Paved by Evangelicals.”
One evangelical, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, spoke for many millions when he rebuked the op-ed vias tweet:
Actually, this unbelievable piece of hate-mongering deserves a little more comment. If you hate Christians & want to denigrate & mock them, I feel sorry for you. But blaming them for a pandemic fanned into flame by the #China Communist Party? That’s sick.
So we can see the dynamic here: The MSM attacks Trump, Republicans, and Christians, in whatever order suits it at the moment. And in response, Trump & Co. attack the media, liberals, and Democrats—and just to make things easy, Trump attacks all three at the same time.
For their part, the Democrats, having become comfortable in their blue-dot citadels, might not be able to see just how much the arrogance of their favorite newspaper, the Times, is hurting them—and hurting them not just among committed Christians.
Yes, we are in the midst of a powerful, maybe even doomy, cycle of tit-for-tat; many will say it does nothing to solve the problems of the nation, starting with the coronavirus.
Yet Trump long ago proved his determination to pound on an opponent’s weakness. And for the Democrats, a key weakness, as Gallup shows, is the media. Biden might be able to beat Trump, but he might not get the chance, because Trump will be too busy beating the media.