In the warped sense of time born of the Trump presidency and the pandemic pause, it seems both eons ago and only yesterday that the “Access Hollywood” story rocked the mediasphere.
In fact, it was just about four years ago, on Oct. 7, 2016, that the Washington Post first published the 2005 recording of Donald Trump casually bragging about how easy it was for him to sexually assault women.
“I don’t even wait,” the reality-TV star told NBC host Billy Bush, suggesting he might start kissing the actress he was about to meet for the first time. It would be no big deal, since “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
In that more innocent time, some people thought these revelations would capsize Trump’s presidential ambitions. A number of top Republicans distanced themselves; members of the religious right claimed to be appalled; and his campaign seemed to teeter. But Trump and his allies dismissed it as “locker room talk” and quickly seized the opportunity to remind voters of his opponent’s husband’s women problems. And he rolled on to victory.
Since then, there’s been one blockbuster scandal after another. The reports that his campaign had welcomed Russian interference in the election, the playing-up to authoritarian world leaders, the Ukraine “quid pro quo” that resulted in impeachment, the racist attack on four non-White congresswomen known as “The Squad,” and the deadly and deceptive mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.
And yet, none seemed to threaten Trump’s substantial base — the roughly 40 percent of the country who continue to support him. Trump knows full well some of them will never abandon him; cue the “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” tape.
Mainstream journalists — striving for fairness, constantly in a defensive crouch about being portrayed as “radical left” — have tried to analyze this loyalty. It’s economic anxiety in the heartland, some say. Or it’s under-the-radar White supremacy. It’s indoctrination by Fox News. It’s deep-seated hatred of the elite. It’s resentment; it’s fear; it’s misinformation; it’s Mitch McConnell.
We the media have never stopped trying to get it.
And so we head out to another Midwestern diner to interview Trump voters about whether they still support him. Or hang around a rally to politely ask members of the gathered throngs why they think it’s fine to congregate maskless in enclosed spaces in the middle of a pandemic.
This kind of pointless inquiry should have stopped a long time ago.
For several months this summer, I lived in Trump Country — specifically, in the reddest congressional district in New York state, represented by Chris Collins, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, until he resigned in disgrace last year while pleading guilty to insider trading.
I would drive the short distance to the grocery store a couple of times a week, always passing a Confederate flag flying proudly on my left, while to the right, two huge Trump flags waved from porches. Nailed to a tall tree along the way, a hand-lettered sign urged: “Keep America ‘Great’ 2020.” (I never failed to ponder those quotation marks.)
A neighbor told me he couldn’t countenance Trump but disliked Hillary Clinton so much he voted for Jill Stein. A woman in the supermarket ranted to me that the mandatory-mask order made her feel like she was living in China. A Republican friend insisted that if Joe Biden chose Elizabeth Warren as his running mate, he would feel compelled to vote for Trump even though he doesn’t like his behavior.
I come away from all of this — the past four years of shocking scandals and constant lies, the conversations with voters, the media’s beating-our-heads-against-the-wall coverage of Trump voters who still like Trump — with a changed viewpoint about the needle that supposedly doesn’t move.
Actually, it does move.
In looking back at the “Access Hollywood” episode, I came across an academic study published this year by scholars from the University of Massachusetts and Brandeis University that cuts against conventional wisdom. Titling their paper “Just Locker Room Talk?,” the political scientists concluded that the revelations did make a difference, finding “consistent evidence that the release of the tape modestly, though significantly, reduced support for Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.” These effects were similar among men and women, but noticeably larger among Republicans compared with Democrats.
Trump’s misdeeds do matter, and they do have a cumulative effect, which is why Republican pollster Frank Luntz has said the election is Biden’s to lose, and why Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight gives Trump only a 1 in 4 chance of winning reelection. (Which, of course, is roughly where things stood four years ago, sounding a cautionary note about polls and probability.)
Yes, Trump has his core loyalists who don’t budge, no matter how many outrages the news media reveals, nor what their hero does.
But not everyone holds firm. Not endlessly.
To use the medical metaphor, when it comes to changing their minds about Trump, a lot of Americans may be resistant. But they aren’t immune. The long-term effects of “Access Hollywood” — and everything that followed — are still playing out.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.