Jonah Goldberg: Trump’s poor approval ratings have little to do with Mueller investigation
“Without the ILLEGAL Witch Hunt, my poll numbers, especially because of our historically ‘great’ economy, would be at 65%,” President Trump tweeted last month.
In all likelihood, the president believes what he wrote. It’s a strongly held sentiment among many of Trump’s ardent supporters that if he hadn’t been stabbed in the back by the Deep State, the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller and a complicit media, people would give him a fairer shake than he’s gotten.
Is it true that the president’s poll numbers have suffered largely because of what he calls a “witch hunt”?
The shortest and most accurate answer for this and all counterfactuals is, “We can never know.” Still, there’s ample reason to conclude the answer is, “Probably not.”
There are two mutually reinforcing reasons for this conclusion, one structural, the other specific to Trump. The structural explanation is that the electorate has been growing more polarized for decades, and the presidency had become a symbol in the culture war long before Trump.
There have been only a handful of times in recent decades when any president has enjoyed a supermajority of public approval. During wartime, for example, the rally-around-the-president effect often swamps partisanship. George H.W. Bush hit 89% after the first Iraq war, and after 9/11, his son reached 90%.
Bill Clinton’s highest approval numbers were reported on the day he was impeached. Barack Obama’s best performance (67%) came four days after his inauguration, when many Americans were hopeful that his presidency could deliver on his campaign promise to put the culture wars behind us.
In all of these cases, however, the entropic effect of polarization reasserted itself as Americans divided back into Red and Blue teams.
According to Gallup, Trump took office with an approval rating of 45%. His highest approval rating in Gallup’s polling was achieved last month: 46%.
The notion that the public would have come around to Trump but for the Mueller probe presupposes that the investigation is what made him unpopular, when all of the evidence suggests that the investigation was merely something that people who already disliked the president put their hopes in. When Mueller’s finding that there was “no collusion” was released, Trump’s approval rating went down, not up.
There is, however, one way in which the Mueller probe may have hurt him: his reaction to it. When impeachment loomed for Clinton, however much he was privately obsessed with it, his public position was to ignore it and at least seem like he was focused on the people’s business. Trump went a different way.
Normal presidents begin their terms by attempting to at least appear as if they represent the whole country. They try to build on the coalition that elected them. Trump has never made any sustained effort in this regard. From his inaugural address onward, Trump has catered to his biggest fans.
This is a defining feature of Trump’s character. The only people who matter are the ones who love him. And since his election, he’s routinely mocked the idea that he should be “presidential,” because his fans would find it “boring.”
It’s easy to imagine a world where the Mueller probe never happened. It’s harder to imagine one where Trump isn’t Trump, which is why 65% approval was never in the cards.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and the host of The Remnant podcast. His Twitter handle is @JonahDispatch