The Basement Dweller

The closer you examine Donald Trump's approval ratings, the more abysmal they look.

Donald Trump in October 2016. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Trump’s low approval ratings have gotten notice, but the closer you look the worse they are. At the risk of engaging in wild psychoanalysis, this must be very hard on a pathological narcissist, assuming he’s been fully briefed on the issue.

Here’s a graph of the history of Gallup’s presidential approval question. They started asking the question — “Do you approve or disapprove of the way X is handling his job as president?” — in 1942. But timing was patchy at first, and didn’t approach a monthly schedule until around 1950. Polling has been daily since Obama took office (who, by the way, spent almost all of his time below the average line).

Trump was at 40 percent on March 21, up from a low of 37 percent three days earlier. (That’s the dot on the right end of the graph. Daily updates here.) His average for March so far, 41 percent, is at the thirteenth percentile of monthly readings since 1950 (meaning that in only 13 percent of all months since January 1950 has a president’s approval rating been lower). It’s twelve points below the average of the sixty-seven-year history shown.

More remarkably, March is only Trump’s second full month in office. The average for his predecessors’ ratings for their first two full months in office is 64 percent; Trump is twenty-four points below that average, and fifteen points below the previous basement-dweller, Bill Clinton. Trump is well-practiced at the art of the honeymoon, but that experience isn’t carrying over to the presidency.

As satisfying as this information is, it’s not clear what can be done with it. It’s sometimes said that approval ratings affect a president’s ability to get things through Congress, but Trump is an unusual president and Congress is controlled by reactionary loons. Together the two branches don’t yet look like a well-oiled machine. Perhaps that will change.

But Trump’s unpopularity does argue against reading him as the true expression of a toxic American inner essence. We’ve got problems, but we’re not quite that bad.