Wednesday, May 27, 2020


Like the rest of us, Brian Klaas of The Washington Post has noticed that Donald Trump never pays a price for words and deeds that would end other politicians' careers.
In functioning democracies, politicians live and die by public opinion. George W. Bush certainly learned that lesson. After 9/11, his approval rating soared to 90 percent. As the Iraq War worsened and the economy collapsed, he hit a low of 25 percent. Nearly 7 out of 10 Americans changed their minds about him at some point during his presidency.

Trump is fundamentally different. According to Gallup, his highest approval rating has been 49 percent; his lowest, 35 percent. For 103 out of the 130 polls Gallup has conducted since Trump took office, his approval rating has been stuck between 37 percent and 43 percent....

Heck, during the pandemic 100,000 Americans have died and nearly 40 million Americans have become unemployed. And still Trump’s approval rating has moved up and down a few percentage points at most. How is that possible?
Klaas ascribes this, in large part, to simple human nature.
First, Trump gets away with it because the previously unthinkable has become routine. As a species, we are drawn to fresh and surprising information — something we could call “novelty bias.” What would surprise you more: Trump amplifying a lunatic conspiracy theory in a tweet or him unequivocally praising the sacrifices of immigrant nurses and doctors during the pandemic? The former happens all the time; the latter would provoke breathless commentary. Is Trump finally making his mythical pivot to being presidential? Is this a new general election strategy? For every other mainstream politician, that dynamic would be inverted.

That’s why this week’s Sunday morning shows focused on Joe Biden’s recent bungled joke (for which he quickly apologized). Meanwhile, Trump’s praise of a well-known anti-Semite and his false accusation of murder weren’t mentioned.
But Biden has been in politics for much longer than Trump and has been bungling jokes for much of his career. If human beings have a "novelty bias," it's Biden's gaffe we should be ignoring.

Klaas might be correct about how we perceive Trump now, but why did America react to him the way it did in 2015 and 2016, when he was first running for office? Most of us had never watched him talk about politics. He attacked John McCain. He attacked a disabled reporter. He attacked a Gold Star family. He said that Mexicans who come to America are invariably rapists. He expressed contempt for a series of women, often because of their looks. And then he bragged about sexual assault.

We were surprised. "Novelty bias"? That was novelty. And yet his standing in the polls never wavered.

Klaas continues:
Second, it’s not easy for humans to admit when we are wrong. It produces a feeling called cognitive dissonance. That has always been true. But for Trump voters, who have, by now, stuck with him despite him boasting about sexual assault, countless scandals and a steady stream of racism, the psychological cost of breaking ranks has soared. His supporters would have to say to themselves: “All of Trump’s previous conduct was acceptable, but this is the final straw!” There is a ratcheting effect. The more you were willing to accept, the harder it is to let go.
But Klaas just got finished telling us that George W. Bush went from near-unanimous approval to rejection by approximately three quarters of the American public. If we could change our minds then, why not now?

And finally:
Third, U.S. politics is now defined by a phenomenon called “motivated reasoning,” the tendency to see reality through the lens of desired outcomes. For many Trump voters, reality stretches to fit a prior worldview. Every Trump scandal proves that the “deep state” exists. Every new revelation about Trump’s unfitness for office proves that he’s the victim of “fake news.” Everything in our politics is filtered through the prism of pro-Trump/anti-Trump divides. We’ve reached the dystopian moment in our politics in which taking common-sense actions to stop the spread of a virus by wearing a mask is a partisan act.
But then why did Trump get away with all this during the 2016 campaign, when most Americans had never heard the phrases "deep state" and "fake news," and certainly weren't sworn enemies of either?

There's a simpler explanation: Trump survives because more than 40% of Americans -- including, apparently, a majority of white people, and a significant majority of white men -- don't think Trump has done anything particularly objectionable, and believe, in fact, that much of what he does is wonderful, including, in many cases, the very things the rest of us find horrifying. The racism, the authoritarianism, the bullying -- it's good. It's "politically incorrect." They know the rest of us find it all objectionable. They wallow in the fact that his behavior upsets us.

Voters in America are still capable of changing their minds about politicians. Trump's fans could, too. They just haven't seen any reason to do so.

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