This “Fifth Avenue problem” is a central puzzle of the Trump presidency. Somehow, Trump can tweet something that would destroy any other politician when he wakes up, and it’s forgotten by lunchtime.
Don’t believe me? In the last week, Trump didn’t just make a false accusation of murder. He also praised one of the United States’ most virulent anti-Semites as a man who bestowed “good bloodlines” on his descendants. He retweeted a man who called Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be a major-party candidate for president, a “skank.” Trump shared an image with Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve as House speaker, with duct tape over her mouth and then mocked her physical appearance. And he repeatedly fabricated lies about voter fraud.
If Joe Biden behaved like that, it would destroy his career. But when Trump does it, it has no significant impact on his support. His depravity is now just widely assumed. It’s baked in.
That presents a paradox: The last three years have felt like we’re collectively strapped into the world’s worst roller coaster — of endless scandals, tweets in search of reality and new lows for presidential conduct. Yet for all those disorienting twists and turns,and the seemingly endless plunge of presidential standards, Trump’s approval rating has remained pretty much the same.
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. (The margin of error is usually around 3 percent, so it’s plausible that public opinion rarely moves and we’re mostly seeing statistical noise.)
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?