Is the Media Trump’s new Evil Empire, or his First Order?

National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar responded to yesterday’s post about whether Trump’s coalition is bound together by the media/entertainment complex’s biases and histrionics, directing me to a study by UVa’s Center for Politics.  NBC’s Steve Kornacki (to whom I was nominally responding) has written further on the meaning of Trump’s culture war.  In addition, NR’s Rich Lowry wrote a column for Politico Magazine suggesting the establishment media is to the Trump coalition what the Soviet Union was to the Reagan coalition — an Evil Empire that glues its foes together.

Let’s get to it.

The UVa study (pdf) shows that in April 2017, 48% of Trump supporters cited his political correctness as best describing the reason why they voted for him (slide 73).  That’s substantially higher than the 19% in the Pew study I cited yesterday, which was conducted during the 2016 campaign.  Indeed, it’s substantially higher even if you add the additional 10% concerned about American values in the Pew survey.  I wonder whether, as with poll questions about for whom respondents voted, there may not be some retconning of responses between Sept. 2016 and April 2017.

Of course, for the purpose of this discussion, a problem with both the UVa study and the Pew study is that we don’t know how much “non-PC” refers to Trump’s attacks on the media, as opposed to his comments on immigration, other Republicans, the size of his hands, etc.  We do know the UVa study had 88% of GOPers agreeing the media is an “enemy of the American people,” which seemingly bolsters Lowry’s theory that the media may serve as the new Evil Empire against which Republicans rally in common loathing.

So I looked for specific, more recent data on the question, and found it in the Economist/YouGov series of polls.  In July and August, YouGov asked not only about Trump’s treatment of the media, but also the media’s treatment of Trump.  The general partisan results for these questions are roughly what you would expect, but the specifics are intriguing.

A month ago (pdf), 73% of Republicans approved of how Trump has handled the media.  In the brand new August poll (pdf), that number dropped to 66%.  Given the margin of error for that GOP subsample, I don’t want to read too much into that drop.  Among Trump voters, the number only drops from 76% to 73%.  Also, the number of GOPers who approve or disapprove of how the media treats Trump is essentially static (~17% approve, ~75% disapprove).

(For comparison, in August 54% on Indies disapprove of how Trump treats the media and 51% vice versa.)

However, even assuming for the sake of argument the drop is close to the margin of error, these numbers are below 80% on questions pitting the GOP’s de facto leader against the party’s bete noire.  Just like Tony Fabrizio’s numbers showing only 75% job approval for Trump within the GOP, and roughly 50% in a hypothetical 2020 primary, racking up only 66% against the party’s new Evil Empire looks pretty shabby.  Maybe the media is less like an Empire and more like a First Order — the less satisfying, more whiny retread introduced for a new generation of fan service.

To Kornacki’s larger point, the media/entertainment complex’s obsession with attacking Trump is an undeniable phenomenon.  OTOH, Trump’s continuing obsession with his media coverage is a similarly undeniable phenomenon.  Trump’s approach gets approval from the GOP, though perhaps not as much as might be expected in light of the UVa study.  And Trump’s job approval rating continues to ebb anyway, though it’s too early to say whether Trump’s attacks on the media are themselves starting to wear thin within the party rank-and-file.

As noted yesterday, Kornacki is probably correct that Democrats should be concerned Trump’s job approval could snap back during a re-election campaign for reasons of partisanship (above and beyond what might occur due to policy or exogenous events).  But any such snap-back would occur in the context of a head-to-head contest with a Democratic nominee.  What we are currently seeing is that absent Hillary Clinton, the GOP’s substitution of the media as their new Evil Empire is not stopping Trump’s decline in job approval.

Given that Trump’s presidential job approval ratings may place a ceiling on the House GOP vote in 2018, Republicans may need for Trump to do something more — or different — than railing against the media.

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