AGAINST THE GRAIN

Trump Exploits Gap Between Elite and Public Opinion

The president’s job approval has inched upwards since Charlottesville, and a surprisingly high number of voters agree with his provocative rhetoric.

Demonstrators in Philadelphia on Wednesday gather in response to a white-nationalist rally held in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend.
AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Aug. 18, 2017, 2:26 p.m.

The reaction after President Trump’s tepid response to the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville was swift and severe. One broadcast network devoted its entire nightly newscast to Trump’s chaotic press conference on Tuesday. The next day, The Economist portrayed the president screaming into a bullhorn shaped as a Ku Klux Klan hood on its cover—with other news magazines following suit. Many Republican officials have denounced the president in the sharpest terms since his election. Business leaders resigned from the president’s corporate councils in protest.

But in a repeat of myriad Trump campaign controversies, voters didn’t share the same level of outrage as the elites. The latest wave of polling shows that the president’s overall job-approval rating has inched upwards since the controversy, that a sizable majority of Americans support maintaining Confederate memorials instead of tearing them down, and that a notable minority agree with the president’s use of “both sides” language during Tuesday’s press conference.

The polling is simply the latest illustration of the gaping divide between elite opinion and the views of average Americans. It’s clear many voters don’t share the same sense of alarm about Trump as political leaders and journalists. Judging by the news coverage, you’d reasonably expect the president to have alienated the entire country with his insensitive, racially charged rhetoric. In reality, public opinion is splitting along predictable partisan lines—with Trump’s view that Confederate monuments should be preserved getting a surprising degree of bipartisan support.

Former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel put it best, writing in Newsday this week about a recent conversation he overheard at a Long Island diner. “Now they’re making a big deal about statues? Who cares about statues!” Israel recounted hearing. It’s why top Democratic strategists have urged their candidates not to talk to voters about impeachment or dwell on the hot-button issues driving media coverage.

The most surprising finding from the latest polling is how many Americans agree with Trump on the issue of Confederate statues. A PBS/NPR/Marist poll conducted after the Charlottesville protests found a whopping 62 percent of registered voters preferring to maintain Confederate memorials as a “historical symbol” over removing them “because they’re offensive to some people.” The issue united Republicans (86 percent approved maintaining them and only 6 percent disapproved), while dividing Democrats (47 percent approved removing them and 44 percent disapproved). Even a 44 percent plurality of African-Americans didn’t want to tear them down.

The results show there’s a method to Trump’s madness, no matter how divisive and destabilizing his rhetoric may sound to elites. He leaned into the Confederate controversy on Thursday by tweeting his support for “beautiful” monuments. Democrats responded with outrage, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi even calling for the removal of Confederate statues from the Capitol. All of a sudden, Democrats could find themselves exposed politically for their overreach.

Trump’s decision to blame “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville—apparently alluding to the radical “antifa” counterprotesters clashing with neo-Nazi demonstrators—also got a surprising degree of support. An automated SurveyMonkey poll found 43 percent of Americans agreeing with Trump, while 53 percent disagreed. That’s hardly an endorsement, but it was far more favorable than the outraged reaction the press conference received from journalists and leaders of his own party. In fact, the number of rank-and-file Republicans agreeing with Trump on his Charlottesville remarks (87 percent) is a bit higher than the number of Republicans who typically approve of Trump’s job performance (which usually hovers around 80 percent).

Finally, Trump’s overall job-approval rating is virtually unchanged in the aftermath of Charlottesville. Quinnipiac’s new survey found it at 39 percent, up 6 points since its last survey earlier in the month. Gallup now pegs his approval at 38 percent, inching upwards from his all-time low of 34 percent just before the Charlottesville protests. The aforementioned PBS/Marist poll also found his job approval at 38 percent. For context, that’s the same percentage who viewed him favorably on Election Day before he won the presidency.

The biggest divide in American society is between the elites who once reliably shaped public opinion and less-privileged voters, who are increasingly tuning out mainstream sources in favor of self-selected information networks. It’s a sobering reminder that the divisions in America are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon, and will probably worsen.

But it’s also a reminder that to have any chance at uniting the country, political leaders need to do their best at persuading a skeptical public of the rightness of their views—and not mock, shame, or dismiss people who hold different opinions. When the elites are so at odds with the public on issues of great consequence, a dose of humility may be in order.

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