Why Are Donald Trump’s Poll Numbers Still So High?

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Trump. Trump. Trump.Photo: Bill Pugliano/2015 Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Chuck Schumer’s opposition to the Iran deal, Trump’s continued strong poll numbers after the GOP debate, and Caitlyn Jenner’s future as a public figure.

Chuck Schumer stirred up sharp criticism from the left by announcing his opposition to President Obama’s Iran deal, though it doesn’t look like his vote will ultimately prevent the deal’s approval. Schumer aspires to lead the Senate Democrats after 2017. Should this turn cost him his colleagues’ support down the line?

If Schumer’s “no” vote causes the Iran deal to go down, that would set up a furious and possibly successful challenge to his status as Harry Reid’s heir apparent in the Senate. But everyone assumes that Schumer is opposing the deal precisely because he knows his vote is not needed to put it over. So his ascent to the top of the Senate Democrats is not in jeopardy. Schumer knows how to count votes, God knows.

His wisdom about foreign policy is another matter. “I think we will have no choice but to engage in a large-scale military action in Iraq,” he said in January 2002. Actually, we did have a choice, and he made the wrong one, voting for the war resolution with even less hesitation than his fellow New York senator Hillary Clinton. Much of Schumer’s argument against the Iran deal, released as an online manifesto, is similarly lacking in gravitas. He comes across “a bit like your crazy uncle who gets his opinions from talk radio and wants to set you straight at Thanksgiving,” in the words of Jeffrey Lewis, writing in Foreign Policy. Read Lewis to appreciate just how much Schumer, for all his ostentatious deliberation, garbled the actual terms of the deal when announcing his opposition to it. Like other opponents, he cannot explain away the fact that there is no better alternative to curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Nor can he satisfactorily explain how scuttling this deal will make Israel safer. Quite the contrary. If we walk away from the deal, the current sanctions regime will collapse, and Iran will be completely liberated to pursue a bomb on as fast a timetable as it can. And then what? The most likely outcome will be apocalyptic “large-scale military action” of the kind Schumer voted to unleash in Iraq.

Schumer is smart enough to know this. But on this one he is playing to the neocon claque and the donors who love them (and support him). The whole exercise has been both disingenuous and cynical. But I can’t find a single person who expected anything else from Schumer. As a friend of mine said a few years ago, “Schumer says everything a liberal Democratic senator from New York should say while believing none of it.” That’s harsh, but really, what does he believe in? Well, in power, for sure. You can bet he would have come out for the deal in a second if he had calculated that voting “no” threatened his own political ambitions.

The controversy following Donald Trump’s comments about Megyn Kelly may have hurt him among some GOP insiders, but, according to post-debate polling, it hasn’t cut into his popular appeal with Republican voters. Why not?

The mystery of Trump’s hold on Republican voters is no mystery. As many, including me, have said, his xenophobia and misogyny have long been orthodoxy among the party’s base. Just look at the Fox News debate itself. Though Kelly called Trump out on his history of misogynistic insults, none of his nine opponents onstage took exception to his crude attack on Rosie O’Donnell or to the laughter and cheers it aroused from the audience. (The incident was an echo of that 2012 GOP debate where no one onstage dared chastise the audience for booing Stephen Hill, a gay serviceman in Iraq who asked the candidates a question about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell via video.) Nor did anyone onstage dissent when Scott Walker and Marco Rubio declared that women should be outlawed from seeking abortions even if their own lives are at stake. How glibly and eagerly they decreed capital punishment for women who have the ill fortune to end up in tragic, potentially fatal pregnancies.

The difference between Trump and his cohort is that he shouts his party’s ugliest views at the top of his lungs and without apology rather than sugarcoating them in Frank Luntz–tested euphemisms and code words. What the GOP Establishment wants is Trumpism — and Trump supporters — without the embarrassing spectacle of Trump himself. Now he has called their bluff and is holding the entire Republican Party hostage. The Establishment would like to blow him up so that he’ll stop giving up the game by calling attention to the extremist views and constituents in the GOP base, but every attempt to sideline him has backfired. Trump, meanwhile, retains the power to blow up the party’s 2016 hopes by coaxing his followers either to stay home on Election Day or to join him in some quixotic third-party sideshow. As my colleague Gabriel Sherman has reported, even Roger Ailes has had to retreat and seek peace with Trump once Trump threatened to boycott Fox News and deprive it of ratings oxygen in the wake of his battle with Kelly. By bringing Ailes to heel, Trump has made himself the most powerful figure in the conservative firmament right now — more powerful than Ailes’s own boss, Rupert Murdoch.

Every day brings another op-ed or quote from a Republican functionary trying to find the bright side. Somehow Trump, in the end, will be good for the other candidates because he makes them look more presidential. Or he will fade when the calendar hits Labor Day, or will somehow self-destruct. These premature obituaries appeared after Trump mocked John McCain’s war service, after Trump supposedly did poorly in the debate, and after he literally attacked Kelly below the belt. Yet Trump’s numbers kept going up. Now William Kristol’s Weekly Standard is reduced to hawking a poll from Rasmussen Reports showing a falloff in Trump’s Republican support. That’s true desperation. Rasmussen is the notorious polling outfit that last gave Republicans false hopes in 2012, when it presaged a Romney victory by calling six of nine battleground states wrong.

From the Diane Sawyer interview through the Vanity Fair cover to the premiere of her reality show I Am Cait, Caitlyn Jenner’s introduction has been something of a public-relations masterpiece. But half of the show’s audience didn’t come back after the first episode, and ratings continue to drop.  What’s Cait’s future as a public figure?

Jenner’s future as a public figure could be very bright, not to mention important, for all the reasons we know and she knows. If the ratings continue to plummet for her E! series — episode two was down to 2.1 million viewers — that may be an indication that the time has come to separate her role as an advocate from her role as an entertainer in a cheesy celebrity enterprise tied to the Kardashians. Imagine, for instance, if Jenner, a self-proclaimed Republican, makes good on her declaration to Sawyer that she would speak to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner about trans rights. Even better, imagine if she did so on television, so the world could see her take her stand. And why not invite Trump for good measure — and good ratings? Sawyer’s Jenner interview may have drawn 17 million viewers to ABC, but Trump induced 24 million to watch a show otherwise filled with boring Republicans on Fox News last week.