The Corner

White House

Trollees Have Agency, Too

President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he steps from Air Force One upon arrival in Las Vegas, Nevada, June 23, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Axios highlights “an odd paradox”: “The more President Trump does, says and tweets outrageous things, the more his critics go bananas and the better he does in the polls.” Among the evidence cited in defense of this proposition is that, even after last week’s border “crisis,” Trump’s approval rating is somewhat normal:

Gallup has Trump’s approval at a new high since the beginning of his presidency: 45%. That’s roughly the same as others at this point: Barack Obama (46%), Bill Clinton (46%), Ronald Reagan (45%) and Jimmy Carter (43%).

I have no doubt that, in part, Trump behaves as he does in order to provoke the people he dislikes into a frenzy. Among other things, the president is a troll — a thin-skinned one, at that — and his administration knows that, for many of its supporters, this sort of “fighting” is central to the man’s appeal. Moreover, it tends to work — as it has done for a while. Indeed, although Trump has pushed the practice to eleven, the tactic that Axios is describing was used deliberately, repeatedly, and successfully by his predecessor. As John Dickerson noted on Slate back in 2014, President Obama also exhibited the sort of “refined cynicism” necessary to tempt his opponents into overreaction:

CBS’s Major Garrett writes in National Journal about a new version of the “stray voltage” theory of communication in which the president purposefully overstates his case knowing that it will create controversy. Garrett describes it this way: “Controversy sparks attention, attention provokes conversation, and conversation embeds previously unknown or marginalized ideas in the public consciousness.”

The issue last week was the pay gap between men and women. The president issued executive orders to address the disparity, and Democrats pushed legislation in Congress. In making the case, the president and White House advisers used a figure they knew to be imprecise and controversial—a Census Bureau statistic that the median wages of working women in America are 77 percent of median wages earned by men.

As Dickerson recorded, the idea was to keep the “national conversation” centered on an issue that favored the president’s party, and thereby to “troll the GOP”:

Facts, schmacts. As long as people are talking about an issue where my party has an advantage with voters, it’s good. So, the theory goes, if I’m a Republican candidate, I benefit from conversations about budget deficits and spending restraint because voters trust Republicans more on the issue of the budget and spending restraint, and it excites Republican voters who care about those issues. Democrats have several reasons to keep stories about equal-pay equity in the news. It excites their voters, attracts female voters, and crowds out whatever the Republicans wanted to talk about (these days, Obamacare). It also sets a trap. The more Republicans have to talk about politically unfavorable issues, the greater chance they’ll slip up and say something dumb like candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock did that can be exploited more broadly.

Clearly, President Trump is doing the same thing with immigration. And, frankly, I’m not convinced he’s failing. The child-separation policy was seriously unpopular, which is why the administration backed down. But on immigration in general, Trump has a winning hand — and he knows it. Per CBS, almost half of Americans (48 percent) believe that illegal immigrant families should be released “back to their home country together.” This is compared to just 21 percent — about the same number as want to repeal the Second Amendment — who want the government to “release the entire family in the U.S. temporarily and require that they report back for a hearing later.” The question of child separation was complex, and, in all honesty, somewhat marginal to the broader debate. The question of what to do with illegal immigrants in general is both simple and fundamental. The very second that Trump backed down on the specific, he started to win again on the general. Increasingly, the Democratic party is adopting an immigration position that if followed to its conclusion leads to de facto, if not de jure, “open borders.” Trump knows this, and he knows he can count on the #Resistance to keep the topic in the news.

Which brings me to a question: What the hell are his opponents thinking? Have they not noticed that their hysteria is mostly being ignored? Have they not started to worry that, worse, it might be having the opposite effect to the one intended? Do they not care that Trump’s approval is now where Ronald Reagan’s was, and where Bill Clinton’s was, and where Barack Obama’s was at the same point in their territories? That the generic ballot lead has shrunk again? Are they not aware that, when voters start to fear violence, mass-protest, and incipient mob rule, they vote for Republicans, not Democrats? Both the Axios story and its Obama-era counterpart on Slate focus heavily on the people generating the “stray voltage.” Neither acknowledges clearly enough that the trollees have agency, too. If the aim of Trump’s critics is to rack up retweets and send cable news hits viral, then they’re doing a superb job. Congrats! Your “[Terrible thing is happening.] [Nazi analogy.] This. Is. Not. Normal. It’s 2018. Think about that.” tweet got 74,000 likes! If the aim is to drive Trump from office and win public policy arguments, they’re losing — bigly.

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