How Conservative Media Coverage Contributes to Trump’s Solid Base of Support By Nicolas Anspach
Donald Trump’s record-setting low approval ratings have not been a total surprise given the contentious campaign and his loss of the national popular vote. Gallup measured Trump’s approval rating at 45 percent in the days following the inauguration, giving Trump the ignominious honor of being the first president with an initial rating below 50 percent. Since January, the president’s approval rating has steadily declined to its current level of 38 percent.
A closer look at Trump’s approval rating; however, shows that Republican voters are still generally pleased with Trump’s performance. In the days following the inauguration, 89 percent of Republicans approved of Trump. Despite a spate of bad press involving Russia and the firing of FBI Directory James Comey in recent weeks, Trump still faces an 84 percent approval rating from voters within his own party. Trump’s approval rating by Democrats and Independents, on the other hand, has plummeted to 7 percent and 31 percent, respectively.
What explains Republican voters’ unwavering support of the President when many others in Washington, including members of his own party, are distancing themselves from the near-daily tumult of bad news out of the White House? Political communication and political psychology scholarship may provide some answers.
Because the news media provide voters with a window into the political world, what stories news outlets choose to cover have repercussions for what audiences know and consider important. If audiences are selective about their news sources, the partisan biases of those sources can have ramifications for how voters receive and process information.
Take, for example, the recent New York Times report that Trump asked former FBI Director Comey to shut down a federal investigation of ousted NSA Director Michael Flynn. While CNN and MSNBC speculated whether Trump’s alleged actions ran afoul of the law, Fox News framed the news differently. Fox News’ audiences instead learned that the New York Times report was the latest in a string of leaks of classified information to the press. According to Fox, the important story wasn’t about possible obstruction of justice, but it was instead about members of the so-called deep state intent on undermining the Trump presidency.
This divergence of coverage exists for nearly all of Trump’s recent troubles: alleged leaks of classified information to the Russians, Comey’s firing, the botched rollout of the travel ban, the push for an unpopular replacement to the Affordable Care Act, and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia are just a few of the bad headlines that Trump has had to weather. Conservative news outlets provide a harbor for the storms engulfing the Oval Office, and voters have high levels of trust in sources sharing their ideology.
According to the news reported by conservative outlets, the Trump administration is not floundering, but instead Trump is the victim of forces out to undermine his presidency. In the face of these attacks by the media, the left, and rogue elements within the government, conservative audiences hear that it is more important than ever to support the nation’s commander-in-chief.
And yet, it is not just the echo chamber that might reinforce Trump voters’ support of the president. In the off-chance that Republican voters are exposed to countervailing narratives about Trump’s performance, their partisan motivations to protect their preconceived notions about the president may lead them to reject the veracity or reliability of such reports.
Indeed, Trump likely knows this. He claims “fake news” whenever the media report a negative story, which fits nicely with the historically-low levels of trust that Republicans have in the mainstream media. Rather than confront the possibility that their opinions of the current political climate are mistaken, motivated reasoners can instead use the excuse of a liberally-biased media to dismiss reports Trump’s missteps.
Of course, it is possible that the recent negative news reports regarding Trump will amount to a lot of smoke, but no fire. If so, then Republican voters may be entirely justified in their unwavering support of the president. But if not, what would it take for Trump voters to abandon the president? In January of last year, at a campaign stop in Iowa, presidential candidate Donald J. Trump boasted that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and not lose any voters.” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Nicolas Anspach (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at York College of Pennsylvania.