Deep in an interview late last week with Bloomberg, President Donald Trump said something truly startling about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A Bloomberg reporter asked Trump about the upcoming midterm elections and how Republicans would do. Here’s the last paragraph of Trump’s answer:
“The advantage we have is — I am actually a very popular president, which people don’t like to say, you know. In fact, I guess the Republican poll came out, there’s one at 92 and one at 93 and one at 90, and they’re the highest numbers that have ever been, with the exception of a tiny period of time with a bullhorn.
“But that period lasted for about a week.”
What Trump is referring to is what is broadly seen as the iconic moment of George W. Bush’s presidency.
It is September 14, 2001. Bush stands atop a pile of rubble on the site of the World Trade Center with his arm around a firefighter. Bush starts speaking with the aid of a bullhorn. Some of the assembled firefighters and emergency personnel yell that they can’t hear him. He responds with this: “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” (You can watch the video here.)
There’s no question that Bush’s poll numbers, which had been middling following his contested victory less than a year earlier, shot through the roof. In Gallup polling conducted between Sept. 7-10, 2001, Bush’s approval was at 51%. The next poll Gallup did — Sept. 21-22, 2001 — Bush’s approval was 90%. Among Republicans, Bush was at 87% approval prior to the terror attacks and at 98% just after them.
As for Trump’s contention that Bush’s period of popularity “lasted about a week,” that is flat wrong. Bush’s approval among all voters didn’t dip under 60% until February 2003, according to Gallup. Among Republicans, Bush’s approval rating didn’t sink below 85% until August 2005.
By comparison with Trump’s poll numbers in Gallup there is, well, no comparison. While Trump is correct that his numbers among Republicans have been solid — he’s never been below 79% or above 88% in Gallup — his performance with the overall electorate isn’t even close to Bush’s. The highest Trump’s approval rating has gone in Gallup data is 45%. He has spent most of his presidency in the low 40s.
All of which is, in truth, beside the point.
The point is this: The current President of the United States filtered a set of terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people — and fundamentally altered the way in which we see ourselves and our world — through the prism of poll numbers. In Trump’s world, everything is a competition between himself and everyone who has been president in the past. (Remember his riff last week about how he is more popular among Republicans than “Honest Abe” Lincoln.) In Trump’s mind, Bush got an unfair advantage because terrorists attacked the country and he got to benefit from “a tiny period of time with a bullhorn.” (Imagine my poll numbers if I had an attack like that, Trump is clearly insinuating.)
To reduce the events of September 11 and all that has come after it to “a tiny period of time with a bullhorn” should provoke outrage. Among all of us. In the world of Trump, however, it was overlooked. It shouldn’t be.