Why so popular?

I recently rewatched Office Space for the 20 millionth time, and was struck by a scene early in the movie in which the nominal protagonist, Peter, is talking to a hypnotherapist:
Peter Gibbons: So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life.
Dr. Swanson: What about today? Is today the worst day of your life?
Peter Gibbons: Yeah.
Dr. Swanson: Wow, that's messed up.
I feel exactly the same way about the Trump presidency.  Consider what has happened in just the last week.

On Monday, Trump's longtime lawyer and "fixer," Michael Cohen, had his home and offices raided by Feds – to which Trump responded with insane threats and ramblings, and a nation once again braces itself for the potential firing of Robert Mueller or Rod Rosenstein. On Tuesday, Rachel Maddow produced some of Dana Boente's contemporaneous notes, confirming a bunch of details from James Comey's own notes (ultimately confirming that Trump was, indeed, asking for loyalty oaths and the like).  By Thursday, the press had started to report on Comey's new book, reigniting (among other things) the prospects that the Pee tape is real.  On Friday, News broke that apparently Cohen was in Prague in Fall of 2017.  This is not 100% confirmed, but it seems to be yet another case in which the Steele Dossier has been confirmed.  Then, perhaps as a distraction, perhaps as a sop to his new National Security Advisor, John Bolton, Trump launched air strikes on Syria and declared "Mission Accomplished," despite the fact that he was saying (and apparently is still saying) that we're going to withdraw.

And it's not even a complete list. It doesn't include the details of how deranged Trump comes across when he tweets about Lyin' Comey or feels the need to bring Hillary up (again).  It doesn't include the ongoing scandals in Scott Pruitt's office (or his ongoing rape of the environment). It doesn't include Paul Ryan announcing his retirement because he doesn't want to run and potentially lose in such an awful environment. It doesn't include his execrable pardon of Scooter Libby for exactly the sort of lying and deceit that he regularly accuses others of on twitter.  It doesn't even include the sort of things which should only get the "libs" incensed.  If anything, it's the right-wing who seem to be decrying the Syria strikes.

That is one week.

The point is that this week has been bad news for him all around. And, honestly, it hasn't even outside the norm for him.

And yet.

A year and change in, and Trump is sitting at around 40% approval rating, with something like 85% approval among Republicans. From my low-noise tracker:

While Trump has gone from a net approval of about -6, he's now at around -11.  That's something, but the positive first derivative of the approval can't be ignored. He is currently "improving."  He started 2018 at around 37%, and has improved by 4 points since then and there's no real indication that he's peaked.  To put it bluntly, that's insane.

Lest you get obsessed about every single poll that comes out that Trump has reached new heights, consider this snipped from today's google news search for polls:

Both ABC and NBC (two A-rated pollsters by 538) released polls on Sunday morning. ABC/WaPo has Trump at his highest point in a year (honestly, pretty consistent with the smoothed trend).  NBC/WSJ has Trump declining by 4 points in a month.  That's a pretty stark difference – unless you understand that these sort of fluctuations are dominated by sampling noise.  But average them, and you get a much clearer picture. Trump is roughly 5 points off his lowest point, despite a monotonic increase in awfulness. 

I should add that until and unless Trump gets much lower, there's little chance that he will be impeached or removed from office, no matter how much of a smoking gun (or more likely smoking guns) Mueller uncovers.  Republican congresspeople will occasionally tsk-tsk, but unless Republican voters turn on him en masse, then at very least, it seems likely he'll get to the end of his term.

But why have 40% been so stubbornly supportive, even to the point where he's clawed back a few points? There seem to be 3 broad possibilities.

Theory 1: It's the Economy, Stupid

Obama left Trump with an economy in pretty sound shape.  Unemployment was 4.8% and dropping, after reaching double digits early in his first term.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average was rising swiftly – It increased by a whopping 149% under Obama's watch, by the way. The GDP saw 2% annual growth; inflation was relatively low.

You could give credit to Trump, I suppose, for not screwing it too much, though it seems not to be for a lack for trying. But 15 months in, and most pundits point to the economy as being the reason that Trump has any base at all.

But here's the thing, there seems to be little correlation between particular pieces of economic news, and the public reaction to it.  The DJIA is down for 2018, and is down about 400 points since Dec 21 (nearly 4 months ago!) when Trump signed the tax bill.  In other words, during the period when the stock market was flat (and after Trump and the Republicans had plundered $1.5T from the American public), his approval went up by 4!

And lest we forget, the market isn't the economy.  I'll be doing a post on the tax bill fallout in due course, but I've been keeping track of a bunch of metrics, and for the most part, they don't look great.
But there are other indicators that suggest that the tax bill and Trump's erratic tariff pronouncements aren't all they're cracked up to be. Last month, for instance, we only had about 103k new jobs – not even enough to keep up with population growth.  And in the 3 months since the tax bill, we're on track for 3 1/2% inflation.

The point is that while the economy is still strong, there doesn't seem to be any obvious reason why Trump's numbers are improving because he sure as hell isn't actually improving things.

Theory 2: The Foxlandia Bubble

On the day when the president's lawyer's offices got raided, Tucker Carlson's lead story was about sex-crazed pandas.  It's pretty well-trod territory that Fox News (plus Breitbart, Daily Caller, AM Radio, and much else) and Trump form a closed ecosystem of nonsense, one in which the FBI has been corrupted by the deep state, nothing legitimate can come of the Mueller investigation, and so on.  And all of this has been amply supported by the cowardice of current elected officials who are more than happy to tow the party line.

All of this is deeply concerning, but while the bubble hasn't popped, it's certainly shrunk.  Boycott campaigns for Laura Ingraham have had a big impact on their bottom line.  Rachel Maddow now regularly beats Hannity in terms of viewers.  Breitbart's numbers have been cut in half.  And lots of prominent conservative intellectuals have abandoned ship, potentially for good.

The bubble, in other words, seems like a good explanation as to why Trump's numbers haven't dropped as quickly as they might have otherwise, but provide no real explanation as to why they've risen – with one exception. After the tax bill passed, one could reasonably expect a one-time bump among right-wingers who felt as though Trump hadn't gotten enough awfulness done in his term so far.  But that was nearly 4 months ago, and I noted above, the benefits have not exactly accrued. 

Theory 3: Some (not me) see the Trumpian Boogeyman as overblown

If you are white and cis and native born and upper middle class and especially if you're male, then there's a decent chance you voted for Trump in the first place.  And while there there's some indication that he's losing older, educated, white voters, there are others who look around and find that things aren't as dire (for them) as libs like me had foretold. (As a grotesque sidenote, the Washington Post poll shows more than 50% of white people in this country approving of him. I mean, what is wrong with us?)

These "independents" find themselves 15 months into this administration with a few bucks extra in their pocket (which they've effectively stolen from their grandkids). They are unable to directly perceive the threat of global warning (what's a degree or two over decades, after all?) or a lack of environmental and safety regulations, and especially unable to empathize with Muslims or trans students or immigrants.  It's easy to rationalize that armies aren't marching in the street. The stock market hasn't yet collapsed. People still seem to have free speech.

I would note, incidentally, that a lot of terrible things have happened, especially with regards the health of our democracy (and here, McConnell is especially culpable).  But if you are generally self-centered, it's easily to imagine a certain numbness setting in.  This was exactly what people have been warning about when they talk about "normalizing Trump."

Unfortunately, I find the normalization narrative to be most persuasive.  While Trump's numbers stink badly enough that the Republicans are going to take a hit in terms of statehouses, governor's mansions, and the House this Fall, it seems entirely plausible that he gets away with his crimes, at least until November of 2020.

The Inflection Point

Republicans have made it pretty clear that, having passed their deficit-busting tax bill, they're prepared to spend the rest of 2018 in campaign mode, pausing only to confirm some truly odious lifetime judicial appointments in the Senate.  Even they recognize that they're going to just hope for the best in a bad environment.  The few Republicans who've stood up to Trump are either headed for retirement (Flake, Corker, most of the Tuesday Group in the House), came back begging with their tails between their legs (Heller) or are, at best, an inconsistent ally (Collins).  And folks like McCain who've done even a few honorable things (like voting against ACA repeal) have been roasted by their own party.

In other words, until a large fraction of popular elected Republicans defy Trump and Fox and the Kochs, that 40% is unlikely to change their tune.


Over the next few months, we've got a bunch of primaries.  In May alone, there's North Carolina, Ohio, West Virginia, Idaho, Nebraska, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky. After that – and for the next six months – those Republicans are going to be far more concerned about winning over independents than they will about defections from their own party. The special elections have shown that embracing Trump in the general is not a good recipe for election. How do you show you're reasonable?  By challenging Trump.  Perhaps by supporting censure or impeachment.  Perhaps by opposing some of his judicial appointments.

But here's the thing: to Trump, you're either with him or you're against him.  Which means that we may well see a tipping point in June or July where a large-ish fraction of Republican nominees run as anti-Trumpers.  It likely won't save them, but it may well change the dynamic.

At least, I hope so.