How Rush Limbaugh Explains Donald Trump's Unpopularity

Checking in on the most influential movement conservative who hasn’t yet abandoned epistemic closure.

Nancy Wiechec / Reuters

The biggest political news in recent days has been Donald Trump’s abysmal performance in the polls. Most every national survey of voters has him losing the election.

His unfavorable rating has reached 70 percent.

His numbers are “at a low that no one, Republican or Democrat, has seen in the past three election cycles,” Phillip Bump explained in the Washington Post. “Looking at the window of time between 200 and 100 days before each of those elections, you can see that Trump has consistently polled worse than George W. Bush in 2004, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012...The margin by which he trails Hillary Clinton now mirrors McCain's deficit to Barack Obama in 2008.”

Perhaps the polls will change. At this early date, I’d certainly caution Democrats and other Trump opponents against overconfidence. Many underestimated the candidate before. Future swing-state polls may tell a different story than recent national polls. And Democrats chose a nominee with many vulnerabilities to exploit.

Still, Trump’s numbers are awful right now. So I wondered how Rush Limbaugh was explaining that. Back in 2008, when Sarah Palin was the unqualified populist on the Republican ticket, there was a whole epistemically closed universe of conservative media sites that totally failed to grapple with her flaws or Barack Obama’s strengths. In 2012, many in the conservative media were convinced right up until election day that Americans would choose Mitt Romney rather than reelect Obama, never mind the polls.

This year, things are different.

Given how divided the right is about Trump, many conservative sites can’t help but be forums for debate. As Jonathan Chait points out, even some prominent apologists for the Palin phenomenon have come out swinging against candidate Trump.

But Limbaugh still operates in a closed bubble. He seldom has guests. His calls are all screened. He has an enormous audience of fans who call themselves “Dittoheads.”

Meanwhile, he’s long been more anti-left than conservative. He hates political correctness. And he cynically stokes white racial anxieties. Little wonder that he’s always been friendlier to Trump than to his short-sighted enablers in movement conservatism. There is no perfect way to see inside the bubble of Trump voters, but checking up on that radio show is as good a start as any.

And for conservatives who’ve been blind to Limbaugh’s flaws but see Trump’s clearly, the program is instructive too. Here’s the talk-radio host on Trump’s poll numbers:

We had two stories about the Trumpster yesterday. The poll that shows... This is a big deal, too, if this is correct, because this may... We're all sitting here wondering, "Have we lost the country?"  You know, are...? Let me just be blunt.  We all ask ourselves, "Are those of us who think the way we do in the minority?  Are people who don't think and believe the way we do now in the majority?"  We're asking ourselves this and we're waiting for elections to kind of tell us.  And we had the poll yesterday.

I think this was a CBS poll. I get 'em confused. One was Reuters; one was CBS.  And I'm doing it from memory. I don't have it in front of me.  (And please don't anybody send it to me. I've got enough paper today.  I don't need to be weighed down with more data. Everything I need's in my head.) The question was, approve or disapprove of Trump's comments after the Orlando event. Remember 25% of the people surveyed agreed with Trump and 51% opposed Trump, and thus agreed with Obama's take after the Orlando thing.

And people are saying, "How can that be, 25%?"  So now people are asking, "Has Trump been that damaged?"

At this point, a person of Limbaugh’s intelligence who earnestly wanted to inform his audience might reflect on some of the reasons that Trump might be doing so poorly.

For example:

  • If you constantly insult women, who are about half of the population,  and Hispanics, who are about 17 percent of the population, causing many people to think you’re a bigot, your poll numbers in a general election will tend to suffer.
  • If you respond to a major terrorist attack with a tweet that congratulates yourself for “being right,” then darkly insinuate that a twice-elected president with an approval rating  greater than 50 percent might have somehow been involved, your poll numbers in a general election will likely suffer.

Here is how Limbaugh chose to discuss Trump’s bad poll numbers instead:

Trump hasn't got ads running. Trump's relying on free media that he's getting. Trump think's he's gonna be able to counter all the Hillary ads and all the expensive attacks they're are gonna make with free TV appearances, like it worked in the primaries. Karl Rove and other experts say, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no.  In the general election, you can't rely on free media. You can't control it." You've gotta have ads. You've gotta go out and fundraise and all this. See, look: 25% versus 51%!"

You have to ask yourself, if you assume the poll's accurate -- and that's a dangerous road to go down. "Well, we don't believe that poll.  It could be made up!" But it's risky to start reacting that way rather than facing what may be the truth. So 25% disagree, and what was Trump's response? Trump's response to me was perfectly reasonable. This is getting out of hand. Nobody's doing anything to stop this. What we're doing or not doing is insane.

We were gonna have to put a moratorium here on immigration to find out what's going on and deal with it. It makes perfect sense to me. Twenty-five percent agree. Fifty-one percent disagree. And by disagreeing, that 51% sides with Obama. And, if you look, Obama's approval numbers are plus 50, 52, 53. Gee whiz, does that make any sense to anybody?  

But then, folks, if you find out how... If you dig deep and find out how young people have been educated in this country, essentially the textbook's written by a guy named Howard Zinn. I'll explain in detail as the program unfolds. You might not have as much on trouble understanding. We've gotten to the point that 2-1/2 generations alive today having been raised having been taught what a rotten place this country is, how it was founded in a totally unjust and immoral way, and that it was not about liberty and freedom. It's not about any of the things that people think this country is about. That's just a myth that the propagandists pushed.

This is what young people have been taught for two generations in grade school, junior high.  

Howard Zinn. Z-I-N-N. Look it up.

Confronted with the most flagrantly unqualified presidential candidate in living memory, a boorish, undisciplined, transparently polarizing nominee, a man reviled by principled movement conservatives whose explicit reasoning Limbaugh well knows, the talk-radio host tells his audience that a left-wing activist historian is responsible for Trump’s low poll numbers, because he poisoned the minds of America’s youth.

A major ideological movement long treated Limbaugh as one of its leading intellectuals. This cycle, that movement got exactly the result that it should have expected.