Trump, impeachment, and US voters’ alternate realities

Why We Wrote This

With impeachment, the division between conservative media and the legacy news media promises to be so wide it is already as if viewers were living in alternate worlds. Is there a way to bridge that divide?

Brian Snyder/Reuters
A man holds a sign calling for impeachment during a campaign rally with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren at Keene State College in New Hampshire Sept. 25, 2019.

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At the Mall of New Hampshire, Charlie sits on a bench. Asked about impeachment, he says he’s against it, because he voted for President Donald Trump in 2016.

“The Democrats will do anything. ... I hate to say it, but they don’t have any morals,” Charlie says.

He watches mainly Fox News because he feels he gets a “better picture” of what’s going on. 

Catherine Handy believes people who watch only Fox are the ones getting a limited picture. She had a family member who watched only Fox. She got them to branch out to NPR, PBS, and MSNBC, and now they regret their vote for Mr. Trump.

Trump voters have the country’s interests at heart, she says. “The people who are pro-Trump are very patriotic. If they really knew what he was doing, they would be as enraged as the rest of us who are in the know,” Ms. Handy says.

Welcome to Impeachment Autumn, 2019.

As Washington struggles with high-stakes drama the nation’s citizens sometimes seem split into polarized camps that view the situation through different lenses. That division is shaped in part by party identification. But it is also due to the fact that those on opposite sides of the debate rarely consume the same news sources.

Paula Blasik is reading a tablet in the food court of the Mall of New Hampshire when a reporter asks her about Washington’s sudden plunge toward an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

The longtime Granite State resident says that she’s against it. “From the moment he won, you heard about impeachment,” she says. Democrats in Congress “have spent a lot of time and money not doing their job,” she adds.

Where does she get her information on U.S. politics? Ms. Blasik, a long-time independent who voted for Mr. Trump, says she watches all the news channels but always comes back to Fox News, because she feels it best enables her to make up her own mind.

Ed Thomas has a very different point of view. Readying his fishing bait on the docks at Tybee Island, Georgia, he says he’d been waffling on whether to impeach the president or let the people oust him on Election Day. But after seeing the latest headlines he now is now leaning toward impeachment of a president he calls “nasty and divisive.”

“Get rid of him, I say,” says the resident of Daytona, Florida. Mr. Thomas’s go-to source of political news, he adds, is MSNBC. 

Welcome to Impeachment Autumn, 2019.

As Washington struggles with high-stakes drama the nation’s citizens sometimes seem split into polarized camps that view the situation through different lenses. That division is shaped in part by party identification, or partisan leaning derived from personal characteristics. But it is also due to the fact that those on opposite sides of the debate rarely consume the same news sources.

With impeachment, the division between conservative media such as Fox News and radio host Rush Limbaugh and what has long been known as the legacy mainstream news media already promises to be so wide it is as if they were living in alternate worlds.

It’s a split that could help President Trump. Conservative outlets have for the most part aggressively defended the White House against House Democrats’ impeachment push. That’s a factor that didn’t exist during Watergate.

If he’d had Fox, “I honestly think Richard Nixon would have survived,” says Brian Rosenwald, author of “Talk Radio’s America: How an Industry Took over a Political Party That Took Over the United States.”

Bryan Woolston/Reuters
A supporter of President Donald Trump attempts to remove a sign from the hands of a protester that called for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and impeachment of President Trump during a campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, Aug. 1, 2019.

Until this week poll data showed that generally impeachment was unpopular with U.S. voters. But the revelations that in a phone call President Trump pushed Ukraine’s leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, and charges that he withheld U.S. aid to Ukraine to compel such an investigation, have begun to substantially change American public opinion.

An NPR/PBS Marist poll from earlier this week showed 49% of respondents support a House impeachment inquiry, and 46% oppose such a move. The results of a Politico/Morning Consult survey from the same time period were 43% for an impeachment probe, and 43% against.

Pollsters cautioned that the numbers on impeachment questions are almost certain to jump around in coming weeks, depending on poll timing, wording, and the degree to which the public is paying attention to events.

“It’s just the beginning,” said Marist Poll director Barbara Carvalho in a Marist “Poll Hub” podcast.

American political media this week reflected a similar split. Friday morning on CNN’s website the lead headline was “Pelosi says Attorney General has gone ‘rogue.’” At the very same time, on the Fox News website was a somewhat opposite line: “Trump, allies escalate attacks over Ukraine call furor.” 

Conservative talk host Rush Limbaugh was even blunter. “Pure, unadulterated lies,” read the top of his website. For his listeners, he did not need to identify which side he saw as lying.

“A bigger split than usual”

“In the conservative media world, scandals are fusing here,” says Dr. Rosenwald, a University of Pennsylvania political historian whose book “Talk Radio’s America” follows the development of the symbiosis between the GOP and conservative outlets. 

Conservatives have long charged, with little evidence, that Mr. Biden headed off Ukrainian investigation in his son Hunter Biden’s activities. A thinly sourced right-wing conspiracy theory also holds that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that was behind the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign officials. Mr. Trump asked for investigations of both these things in the July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart.

The mainstream media, for its part, puts little credence in these charges, says Dr. Rosenwald. Many outlets perhaps feel they focused too much on Hillary Clinton’s emails, and not enough on President Trump’s background, in 2016. As a result, so far they are not being swayed by the Republican attempt to frame the Ukraine situation as something that’s largely about Mr. Biden, his son, and past actions.

So between conservative and mainstream media “you’re going to see a bigger split than usual,” says Dr. Rosenwald. “Right now the MSM has no patience for GOP spin.”

View from Sauk County

The upper Midwest states, the swing region that tipped the White House to Mr. Trump in 2016, is watching the week’s developments closely as well.

Sauk County, Wisconsin, is a battleground county in a battleground state. In 2016, Mr. Trump surprised pollsters by winning Wisconsin with a 1% margin. Sauk County’s margin was even thinner. The president won it with fewer than 200 votes out of nearly 32,000 cast.

This week’s revelations that Mr. Trump urged the president of Ukraine to investigate a political rival may swing that vote the other way in 2020, says Mark Greenwood, leaning against the lunch counter of the Greenwood Cafe in Reedsburg, where he serves as manager and cook. 

“I think this is the final nail in the coffin,” says Mr. Greenwood, who voted for both of the Presidents Bush as well as Barack Obama but has consistently opposed Mr. Trump. “This again shows that the guy has no deference for any type of law.”

But it will be a close vote, he adds, because the county is a patchwork of red and blue. Cyclists share country lanes with pickups. People walk their dogs on a leash at one residence, while down the road farm dogs roam free. Adjacent to Dane County, home of the state capital and the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus, Sauk County has seen an influx of people from Dane, who build homes in and around Sauk’s many dairies and grain farms, but still commute to the city.

“As goofy as Trump is, there are a lot of people who like him,” says Mr. Greenwood.

At the Mall of New Hampshire

Back at the Mall of New Hampshire, Charlie (who did not give his last name), sits alone on a bench, an empty ice cream cup next to him. Asked about impeachment, he says he’s against it, because he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016.

“The Democrats will do anything. ... I hate to say it, but they don’t have any morals,” Charlie says.

He watches mainly Fox because he feels he gets a “better picture” of what’s going on. But occasionally, Charlie says, he tunes into MSNBC.

“I do watch it sometimes, just to make sure I’m right about it being too liberal,” he says.

On the other hand, Catherine Handy, walking through the mall with a friend, believes people who watch only Fox are the ones getting a limited picture. She had a family member who watched only Fox News, and voted for Trump, she says. She got them to branch out to NPR, PBS, and MSNBC, and now they regret their vote, she says.

Trump voters have the country’s interests at heart, she says, but their support for the president is based on limited information.

“I think the people who are pro-Trump are very patriotic. If they really knew what he was doing, they would be as enraged as the rest of us who are in the know,” Ms. Handy says.

Staff writer Laurent Belsie contributed to this report from Wisconsin’s Sauk County.

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