Halfway through the Oscar-winning documentary "Free Solo," rock climber Alex Honnold enters an MRI machine to see if something is wrong with his brain. His passion, and career, is climbing up impossibly dangerous rock formations, often doing so without a rope. He is preparing for the achievement of a lifetime, to be the first person to “free solo” El Capitan, a slab of granite over half a mile tall in Yosemite National Park. He will be thousands of feet in the air, clinging to the sheer rock face with nothing but his bare hands, something even Honnold’s highly-trained climbing pals think is absolute madness.
When Honnold confers with the doctor once the scan is complete, they review how his brain responds when he is shown a set of images intended to invoke a strong emotional reaction. While an average person’s brain’s amygdala would be lighting up in response to images of blood or gore or terror, Honnold’s does not. The doctor posits that it must take a much higher dose of intense stimuli to cause Honnold to have a reaction at all.
Turn on the news and you’ll no doubt be exposed to some intense stimuli yourself these days. The joke is that “every week is infrastructure week,” where the humdrum work of governing is constantly being disrupted by the latest scandal or saga or controversy or crisis. There’s an outcry that we are edging toward a “new normal” where each day brings fresh outrage that pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable and blows up existing norms.
And yet, like Honnold’s serene MRI images, the president’s job approval sits stable and quiet even in the face of chaos. On average, the percentage of Americans approving of the job President Trump is doing trades within a narrow band, ranging from the high 30s to the mid-40s. The day Trump took office, about 44% of Americans approved of the job he was doing. Today? Some 44% approve of the job Trump is doing.
Trumps’ job approvalnumbers slid from 44 to around 37%toward the end of his first year in office, but recovered and have hovered in the low 40s ever since. Compare this to past presidencies; Bill Clinton’sjob approval wavered between 40 and the high 60s, George W. Bush was in the 60s a year after 9/11 andfell all the way to below 30 at the end of his term, and even Barack Obama ranged between thelow 40s and the mid 50s in the Real Clear Politics averages.
What is notable isn’t necessarily the stability of Trump’s job approval; it is the context in which his numbers are stable. Trump’s press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July 2018, which drew significant backlash from Republican leaders, barely registered in his job approval. Before that, during the summer of 2018, where the administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy resulted in child separation? His job approval stayed mostly steady. Only twice in the last year has the president’s job approval taken a dip: the government shutdown and immediately following the death of Sen. John McCain. And even those dips were relatively small.
The release of Robert Mueller's report conclusions, cable news every day consumed with Stormy Daniels or Michael Avenatti or Michael Cohen or Paul Manafort or whoever is in court that day, the firing of this Secretary or this staffer or what have you, all of it barely registers. America’s view of the president stays the same even in the face of intense stimuli in either direction.
There’s an argument to be made that this is because attitudes toward the president are strong and are baked in for a large swath of the public, the “swing” voter is increasingly extinct. The "glass half full" view for Trump allies is that the economy is good, we are not at war in a significant way, and therefore we are in a time of relative peace and prosperity. But on the other hand, plenty of research suggests that majorities of votersfeel stressed about the newsand feel America is at a low point.
Voters may be tired of feeling like they’re clinging to the edge of the wall without a rope, like politics is just constant misery, and at the same time find that the “intense stimuli” no longer registers. But whether you love this president or not, the fascinating contradiction of the Trump era is that for as much as it feels like every day is turbulent, the public’s view of the president stays incredibly, remarkably stable.