Calling out “them lyin’ newspapers” has been standard stump speech since the first cave-man candidate invited the mob to start chunking rocks at the village blowhard. The chunking was such fun the custom survives.
Some politicians do the calling-out better than others. One famous governor in the old South laced his rebukes with wit and humor. “I have a little boy at home,” he would tell the crowd wilting in the August heat on the courthouse square, trying to find a little shade in the shadow of the marble-and-brass Confederate soldier. “That little boy is the dearest thing on earth to me, and if it turns out he’s as smart and as intelligent as his mama and I think he is, we’re going to try to make a Baptist preacher of him.
“If he turns out to be a young man of limited intelligence, well, that’s all right, too. God has us all in His plans. We’ll just send him to law school.
“But if he turns out to be a sorry no-account with not a lick of sense in his head, afflicted with mean and shifty ways, we’ll be disappointed, but we’ll send him down to the state capital to be the editor of the morning newspaper.”
Donald Trump doesn’t have that wit and humor — politics has been drained of that nearly everywhere — but he’s a master at calling out “them lyin’ newspapers,” and adding the perpetrators of radio, television and social media for a whipping as well, whether they need it or not. And the fact is that some do. Fortunately for them it’s hard to find a buggy whip since it’s even harder to find a buggy.
Whatever the magic the Donald has, it’s working, and this frustrates his critics to no end, sending them into rage and rant. But nothing seems to move the needle. A new poll by The Wall Street Journal-NBC News puts his approval rating at 45 percent; the Rasmussen Poll, which over the past two or three election cycles has been the most consistently reliable of the polls, puts the approval rating close to 50 percent, which is about the norm for recent presidents, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama, at this point in their first terms.
In the wake of Mr. Trump’s press conference with Vladimir Putin, widely regarded as disastrous on right and left, this is little short of astonishing. Democratic politicians don’t know what to make of it. The more Donald Trump indulges in being Donald Trump, the more he astonishes.
Democratic pollsters take comfort in the fact that some polling responses were taken before the so-called Helsinki press conference, and when all the results are in the picture for the president and the Republicans will darken. But that’s a hope, not a finding. Other pollsters say it’s the president’s willingness to touch “the hot buttons” of race and immigration, buttons other politicians are aware of but are afraid to touch.
“If another president had these numbers,” Robert Shrum, who has worked for several Democratic presidents, tells Niall Strange of The Hill newspaper, “his political people would be very worried about it. He only cares about his base, and if you look at polls in general, they are in deep trouble for the 2018 election.”
That’s exactly what the pollsters, strategists and other hangers-on said in the run-up to the presidential election of 2016. Donald Trump is sui generis, one of a kind, and his critics have become so addicted to rant and rage, holding up their rant and rage as a badge demonstrating membership in a higher moral order, they can’t get an accurate fix on the enemy.
The president has changed how candidates talk to the public and to each other. “Usually the battles are between Democrats and Republicans,” says Tad Devine, who worked for Bernie Sanders in 2016, “but in Trump’s case it’s between himself and the press. That’s the battle, and he is delivering these messages to people in his base, and they are responding to it.” The press can’t figure out what to do, and the mightiest (and loudest) organs only repeat themselves, scolding with the same rants that didn’t work the first time, or the second or third time, flailing about like the virgin in a bordello insisting that her virtue is, too, still intact.
Focus groups tell researchers they don’t particularly like the way the president does it, but they like what he’s doing — restoring the Supreme Court to its constitutional moorings, staying out of the way of an economy that keeps on booming (“it’s the economy, stupid”), his telling free-loaders in Europe where to get off. It’s not pretty, but neither is the work of a tank.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.