Once upon a time—of all the good days of the year, on Christmas Eve—President Donald Trump sat at Mar-a-Lago, counting his grievances.
The president began this morning, like most mornings, by watching Fox News, and sharing his thoughts on Twitter. He redoubled his attacks on the FBI’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, insinuating that he had behaved unethically—in the process, again mangling the details of the case.
He proceeded to retweet an image from a follower, showing Trump in the backseat of a limo talking on the phone, a figure labeled “CNN” reduced to a bloody splotch on the sole of his upturned shoe. WINNING, read the caption. And then, to drive the point home, he tweeted:
The Fake News refuses to talk about how Big and how Strong our BASE is. They show Fake Polls just like they report Fake News. Despite only negative reporting, we are doing well - nobody is going to beat us. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 24, 2017
The FBI is conspiring to smear him; negative news reports are fake; the polls lie. In the face of all of this, the president finds a consoling thought: His base supports him.
There’s no question that many of Trump’s most loyal voters have stuck by him. They agree that his treatment at the hands of the news media has been unfair, share his suspicions that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election has devolved into a partisan witch hunt, and join him in disregarding negative stories and polls.
The trouble for the president and his party may be that, although his base has indeed stuck with him, it appears neither big enough to secure electoral victories, nor strong enough to resist the constant barrage of negative news without eroding.
A Wall Street Journal / NBC poll recently found that 24 percent of respondents strongly approved of Trump’s performance in office, and another 17 percent somewhat approved; 56 percent strongly or somewhat disapproved. (Those numbers are roughly in line with the average of other recent polls.) Ratings that tilt so far negative usually presage electoral setbacks for the president’s party—and indeed, the past year has seen Republican candidates underperform at the polls, on average, by wide margins.
But the more worrisome finding in that same poll may be the question that Trump himself most cares about: Would respondents vote for Trump if he runs for reelection? Fifty-two percent indicated they’d support a generic Democrat; just 36 percent backed Trump, and only 18 percent said they’d definitely vote for him.
Those findings, taken together, suggest that at least a quarter of those who tell pollsters they strongly approve of his performance aren’t certain they’ll vote for him next time around; at least one in eight of those with positive views aren’t even willing to affirm that they will probably vote for him.
On the other side of the political spectrum, voters appear to have been radicalized by Trump’s tenure in office, much as Obama’s presidency galvanized Republican opposition. In contrast to the 18 percent who will definitely vote for Trump, 38 percent said they would definitely vote for his Democratic opponent; if 24 percent of voters strongly approve of Trump, fully 48 percent strongly disapprove. The polling suggests that the media’s primary failure hasn’t been a refusal to report on Trump’s base of support—it’s hard to open a newspaper without turning to a profile of a Trump supporter—but rather, its relatively scant coverage of the strength and size of the base of opposition Trump has aroused.
But with Fox News switched off, the mood at Mar-a-Lago quickly shifted. Ten minutes after sending the last of his tweets, the president sat down behind his desk at Mar-a-Lago for a videoconference with active-duty military personnel around the world. “I just want to wish everybody a very, very merry Christmas,” he said, according to the pool report. “We say Merry Christmas, again, very, very proudly.”
(In 2016, as in every year of his presidency, President Obama addressed Americans from the White House. “Tomorrow, for the final time as the First Family, we will join our fellow Christians around the world to rejoice in the birth of our Savior,” he said. “And as we retell His story from that Holy Night, we’ll also remember His eternal message, one of boundless love, compassion and hope.” He closed that message, “Merry Christmas, everybody.”)
After extending warm holiday wishes to servicemen and women separated from their families, with only occasional political asides (“Many Republicans are very happy!”) the president turned to the representatives of the fourth estate gathered to record the scene.
And then, as is so often the case, when the president came face to face with the targets of his ire, his harsh denunciations gave way to conciliatory words.
“We’re going to be speaking with the wonderful people of the media and asking them to leave,” he told the servicemembers. To the press, he said, “Enjoy yourselves. Really appreciate it, have a great Christmas and we’re going to do some very personal questions between these great people and myself. We want to thank you very much for being here. If I don’t see you during the day, have a great holiday and a great Christmas, thank you very much.”
When the call was done, the president departed for his golf club.