NBC’s Steve Kornacki joined me this morning to expand on his MSNBC piece on the difficulty of accurately gauging the size of President Trump’s real support:
HH: I’m joined now by Steve Kornacki, chief political correspondent for NBC News where, and we want to talk about three things – last night’s speech by President Trump, today’s trip by President Trump, and the bigger issue behind all this, which is what’s going on with President Trump. Good morning, Steve, how are you?
SK: Good morning, Hugh, I’m doing well.
HH: Now you have a great piece, which I’ve gotten to read in preview. Has MSNBC posted this, yet, on the media?
SK: No, unfortunately, the speech last night has pushed the timetable back a little bit, but in a few hours, it will certainly be up on the website.
HH: Well we’ll weave it in here, a preview. People need to read this, because Steve raises a question which I’ve been grappling with, and he does it with much more data than I am used to using. But let’s first talk about last night’s speech, Steve Kornacki. How did you respond to it?
SK: I thought it was interesting, because obviously, yes, it’s a clash there between the themes, or some of the themes that Trump campaigned on versus the realities that he confronts as president and the realities, obviously, that we’ve seen a few presidents confront right now. My instant reaction was just trying to look at how this might affect his, how this might go over with the folks who elected him. You see, obviously, there’s a lot of popular frustration with how things have gone in Afghanistan over the last 16 years. The President talked about that last night, although I was looking through the polling numbers, and there was an interesting finding that jumped out at me. It was when you really start putting some options on the table for voters. Their frustration of the war doesn’t necessarily hold up in terms of calling for a pullout. If you give them an option of a more aggressive strategy, even if it means adding more troops versus pulling all the troops out, even if it potentially risks emboldening ISIS and the Taliban, they side with the idea of a more aggressive strategy, add some more troops. So that’s sort of the case Trump was trying to make last night. I think he might have a little bit more room to run with it politically right now, but obviously, like with anything else, and like with his predecessors, the ultimate question then will become results.
HH: Let me play for you what I thought was the perfect pitch moment for Donald Trump last night, cut number 8, Adam.
DT: Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an everlasting peace. We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live, or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.
HH: So Steve Kornacki, that’s a swipe at both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And it also is consistent with what I tend to hear from people 17 years into a war that we know we can’t leave, because we are not only the top cop or the top target, but it’s succinctly put. I think that rings the bell.
SK: Yeah, and that was the balance that Trump struck as a candidate. There was so much talk that you know, Donald Trump is a non-interventionist, anti-interventionist. Obviously, he was more critical of the Iraq War, and certainly of Republican leadership under George W. Bush in the Iraq War than you’ve seen in any Republican not named Ron Paul. But the difference between Trump and a Ron Paul or a Rand Paul, for that matter, when it came to rhetoric on the campaign trail, was he matched it with this sort of, for lack of a better term, this sort of tough guy swagger that he really tried to convey. This was the guy who talked about, you know, we’ll bomb the hell out of ISIS, and so he really tried to have two things going on at once. He tried to connect with the popular frustration with the wars abroad, but he also tried to, you know, sort of sell the idea that hey, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to be a tougher SOB than you’ve ever had in there before. So it’s a combination we haven’t really, I think, tested before, necessarily, with the President.
HH: He also was very careful to lay out, and I wonder if you think this was part of his pivot, Steve Kornacki, that he went through a long process. And everyone who writes about it, and McMaster told me, and other people have told, I’m sure, you, it was a very tough talk time with his generals and his military advisors in the Situation Room leading up to the Camp David summit with his military cabinet, inner cabinet, really, that led to the speech last night. That is a predicate, it’s not consistent with the media’s vision of Trump as rather lackadaisical in his approach to issues. It’s the counter narrative, actually.
SK: No, I think it’s interesting, and it also, it sets up a potentially interesting contrast to what’s going to happen tonight when he gives a more traditional campaign-style speech out there in Phoenix. I think people who watch this, whatever you think of the content of his message last night, I think people who watched this had to recognize this was a different kind of Trump speech than we’re used to seeing. I think it reflected a lot of the things you’re talking about. I think it reflected, too, something we did already know about him, and that is he does have a reverence, you know, for the generals, my generals, he calls them, for military leaders. So if someone’s going to get him to sort of sit down and really contemplate and put the time and thought into something like this, I think it’s going to be on the military side. But then of course, you know, the question to me is you saw that last night, and you see a different side of Trump. Now you put him in front of sort of a more red meat crowd in Phoenix tonight, and let’s see if we get a very different Trump tonight.
HH: You know what would be the home run, Steve, people don’t think this could happen, but I do, which is were he to appeal to the Democrats tonight. Give me a bill that builds my wall, or a fence, and give me a bill that makes DACA’s legitimate and legal as opposed to simply an executive order, and let’s combine it with infrastructure, generally. That’s a come hither moment. That would blow a lot of people away if he pivoted to the center on immigration and infrastructure in the same speech.
SK: Yeah, well, I think what you’re describing there, too, is sort of, to make it a strategic speech as opposed to what I think obviously me, and I think a lot of other people are going to go into this looking for, and that is you know, is this going to be a speech where he goes to try to settle a score with Jeff Flake? Is it going to be a speech maybe where he even goes and has something critical to say about John McCain, in John McCain’s home state, you know, even despite what John McCain is going through right now. So I think there is certainly a well-established part of Trump that would make us look for that tonight, and yeah, I think I would be surprised if he went in the direction you’re talking about and shied away from the Flake stuff, maybe even the McCain stuff. But that’s what we’ll be watching for.
HH: I know, it’s why we will all be watching tonight. Let me ask you, Steve Kornacki, to summarize for the audience your piece today, and add if you would the fact that I saw it again yesterday, the media latching onto the President glancing at the eclipse as basically everybody in America looked out of the side of their eye, you know, without the glasses, but then they looked away. He did it a few times. And it was endless criticism. And it goes into my meta narrative that the American people know that the media hates Donald Trump, and they hate that they hate Donald Trump. And that may be torqueing our understanding of what’s going on. I thought, I think your piece is amazingly correct that we don’t know what’s going on here, but expand on what its premise is that people can read later today at MSNBC.com.
SK: Yeah, yeah, no, and I sort of, the idea for it, it’s been sort of in my head for a while now. I’ve been kind of thinking over these things, and they…
HH: Uh oh. Uh oh. We just lost you, Kornacki.
SK: Your experience there of, what’s that?
HH: Yup, you’re back. Okay, you dropped out on us there for a second.
SK: Oh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
HH: You’ve got to start over on the piece.
SK: Sure, yeah. No, I mean, it’s sort of what something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I’ve had a lot of thoughts on it I really wanted to put together, but you know, one of the things that helped crystallize it was something you had tweeted out last week, just about your experience of talking to a group of Republicans who, you know, you were saying were actually somewhat critical of Trump, or could be critical of Trump, but ultimately, they felt kind of, you know, that they were bound to him right now because of their antipathy toward elite media, as you called it.
SK: And I’ve got to say, the challenge with trying to understand Trump’s political standing, and Turmp’s support to me is this. If you look at his numbers right now as president, and this has been the story since January 20th, they’re lower, really, than we’ve ever seen. By any conventional standard, you’d call them catastrophic for a president. But what haunts me is, just analytically haunts me, is the memory that last year, if you looked at his numbers throughout the campaign from June on against Hillary Clinton, they were also, by any historical standard, catastrophic, politically catastrophic. And yet, he was able to win. And so the narrative that grew out of the numbers from June through November last year ended up being very misleading. And so I fear that the same thing could be happening right now, could be. There’s also obviously the other fear of over-learning from last year. But, so I’m trying to figure out what made that narrative so wrong, what made those numbers so misleading last year, and is it still operative this year? And obviously, there are all sorts of possibilities there, and on the more benign end, I guess, is that you know, maybe it was just that Hillary Clinton ran such a terrible campaign and was just rejected by people, and so Trump’s weaknesses didn’t matter. But what you proposed last week, and what I’m thinking about now, is the idea that maybe there is something else. Maybe there is this, what you’re talking about, is a resentment of elite media, and maybe it’s broader than just elite media. When I think about media and culture more generally, late night television comedy, the entertainment world, celebrities, we’re used to them being, you know, sort of aligned with Democrats in a more casual way. But they’ve been sounding an urgent existential alarm about Donald Trump for the last year. I think folks on the left, folks in that world will tell you they think it’s very justified, but I think the question we have to ask is what effect is that having? Is that causing a backlash in and of itself?
HH: And if you can, Steve Kornacki, stick with me through the break, because I would like you to, I have a couple of follow-ups on this, because this, it’s much more than media elites. It’s political elites, I think, but stay tuned, America.
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HH: And so Steve, back to this resentment, I’m going to call it, Republican resentment against elites concerning the coverage of Donald Trump really transcends any attachment to, and indeed may obscure their own discomfort with Trump because of the bitterness that has now affected American politics. And I like to remind people through eight years of President Obama, most Republicans, including me on this show and most of the shows I listened to, rejected the idea that President Obama was a Muslim. They rejected the idea that he wasn’t born in the United States. They were quite quick to say what a great dad he was, that he was wrong, not rotten. But of course, Donald Trump was not part of that consensus middle position, and as a result, presents a unique target for Democrats. But I think the bitterness in American politics now is that no one is giving him anything other than grief all the time, and the left says because he deserves it, but the right says no, that’s not what we do. Is that closing in on where you are right now, that maybe that’s the wellspring of the disconnect?
SK: Yeah, I think, that’s certainly where my head is. I’m trying to figure out if that’s the case. I’m open to the possibility, and I realize it’s something I’m so trained to just look at the numbers, to compare the numbers to past presidents, to past examples, and to say well, we have a precedent for this, or we can look at it this way because this is how it’s gone in history. And the thing I keep coming back to with Trump, and I felt it during the campaign, and I really feel it now, is at a certain point, we have to recognize there may not be a really strong precedent for what we’re seeing. Like I said, it’s not new to hear that there are conservatives or sort of populist conservatives who are upset with the media. It’s not new to hear that celebrities may be, you know, behind Democrats and sort of antagonistic towards Republicans. But the volume of everything with Donald Trump is so much louder…
SK: It is so much more intense. He is central to our culture in a way we’ve never seen with a president before. When I look at late night television, it can feel like an extension of cable news right now. Celebrities go on, you know, on Twitter, on social media, on television shows. All they talk about is politics. And the message is universal. And again, it comes, there’s a disconnect here, because folks on the left say this is absolutely warranted. Trump constitutes an emergency. You know, people need to be out there sounding the alarm. My question is analytical. If that is the case, if that’s what our sort of culture is going to be doing at that volume, my question is what effect does that have on public opinion? And I think you raise a very interesting possibility. Does it cause its own backlash? And is that backlash big enough to sustain Donald Trump?
HH: And you know what happened last night, missed, you know how hard core a Cleveland Browns fan I am. Twelve Browns took a knee last night. LeBron has hit the President. I don’t want my sports teams messing around with this stuff. I mean, I don’t care about Kaepernick. I’ve never been, you know, everyone’s got a right to do whatever they want to do. I just don’t want the franchise to be consumed in the political bitterness of the country. I really don’t want everything to be politicized. Every church, every franchise, every television show, it’s too much stress, Steve Kornacki.
SK: And it’s interesting. I hear that, this is anecdotal, but just discussions I have with people I hear both sides of that. I hear the side that says you know, Donald Trump represents a crisis in our country that I never thought I’d have to confront, and it’s urgent that a celebrity, a sports figure, you know, somebody in culture use that platform to draw attention to it. I hear it from that side, and I hear it just as strong what you just said, that that’s not what I’m turning on ESPN for, that’s not what I’m turning on sports talk radio for. That’s my escape from the world of politics. And there’s a frustration, and sort of a resentment that sets in that you have to be subjected to sort of a heavy-handed political message, and you know, all you’re looking to do is watch a Browns game for two hours or whatever it is.
HH: Which is already a sacrifice (laughing)
SK: (laughing) I’m glad that you said it, not me. I’m the Patriots fan. I’ll stay away from that.
HH: Stay away from that indeed. It’s like rooting for the Mob. Steve Kornacki, it is always great to talk to you. We will look for this MSNBC position paper, this essay, it’s not really, it is an essay. It will be up later today at MSNBC. I’m going to encourage everyone to go and look at it, because it’s the first glimmer that maybe MSM and political elites are going to start to look at what is going on beyond Trump and say what is behind this, because it’s the all-consuming nature of politics, I think, and the Trump Rally Effect bears reading by Steve Kornacki. Thank you, Steve.
End of interview.