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Do Americans Have a ‘Collective Amnesia’ About Donald Trump?

by Marko Florentino
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Not all that long ago, many Americans committed hours a day to tracking then-President Donald J. Trump’s every move. And then, sometime after the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and before his first indictment, they largely stopped.

They are having trouble remembering it all again.

More than three years of distance from the daily onslaught has faded, changed — and in some cases, warped — Americans’ memories of events that at the time felt searing. Polling suggests voters’ views on Mr. Trump’s policies and his presidency have improved in the rearview mirror. In interviews, voters often have a hazy recall of one of the most tumultuous periods in modern politics. Social scientists say that’s unsurprising. In an era of hyper-partisanship, there’s little agreed-upon collective memory, even about events that played out in public.

But as Mr. Trump pursues a return to power, the question of what exactly voters remember has rarely been more important. While Mr. Trump is staking his campaign on a nostalgia for a time not so long ago, Mr. Biden’s campaign is counting on voters to refocus on Mr. Trump, hoping they will recall why they denied him a second term.

“Remember how you felt the day after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016,” the Biden campaign wrote in a fund-raising appeal last month. “Remember walking around in disbelief and fear of what was to come.”

For now, the erosion of time appears to be working in Mr. Trump’s favor, as swing voters base their support on their feelings about the present, not the past. A New York Times/Siena College poll conducted late last month found 10 percent of Mr. Biden’s 2020 voters now say they support Mr. Trump, while virtually none of Mr. Trump’s voters had flipped to Mr. Biden. The poll found Mr. Trump’s policies were viewed far more favorably than Mr. Biden’s.

“What’s been clear for a while, especially among swing voters, is that Biden is just more front and center,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican consultant who opposes Mr. Trump and has conducted dozens of focus groups with conservative and swing voters in recent months. “They know about what they don’t like about Biden, and they have forgotten what they don’t like about Trump.”

Polls suggest that Mr. Trump has also made inroads with voters who may have been too young to remember his first term in detail. The nearly 4.2 million 18-year-olds who are newly eligible to vote this year were in middle school when Mr. Trump was first elected. Polls show they have soured on Mr. Biden in part because of his support for Israel in the war in Gaza, saying they favor Mr. Trump on the issue, even though Mr. Trump was also a staunch ally to Israel while in office.

Ian Barrs, who works at a funeral home in Atlantic, Iowa, said there were other parts of Mr. Trump’s record that have seemed to fade. He often marvels how his Trump-supporting friends recall the years 2017 through 2019 as halcyon days. They all had forgotten 2020 and the year of Covid, he said.

“Now I don’t blame Trump for Covid,” Mr. Barrs said. “But all those things, the lockdowns, those happened under Trump.”

It’s common for Americans to look back fondly on ex-presidents. A Gallup analysis in June found 46 percent of adults approved of Mr. Trump’s handling of his presidency, based on what they “heard or remembered.” Mr. Trump’s approval rating when he left office was 34 percent.

Asked what events he remembered about the Trump administration, Roger Laney, a 55-year-old independent, undecided voter in South Carolina, described a general sense of “chaos.”

“He made great media,” Mr. Laney said, recalling how he would listen to public radio on the way home from work and think, “OK, what has Trump done this time?”

The frenetic pace of the Trump years meant many Americans made Trump news an obsessive habit — or tuned out completely. The rat-a-tat volume coincided with the continued rise of siloed, algorithm-driven social media and shrinking attention spans.

That environment created a kind of numbness that not even 91 felony counts or enormous civil penalties for defamation and fraud can break through, said Andrew Franks, a professor of political psychology at the University of Washington.

“Negative information about Trump is no longer distinctive, it is just the air that we breathe,” Dr. Franks said. “It’s the water that we are swimming in. It just becomes a conditioned emotional response, where you either feel joy and admiration or disgust and anger at the sight of his face — but each individual act is just a drop in the ocean.”

Ross Kuehne, an independent from Candia, N.H., who supported Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s rival for Republican nomination, said he remembered being overwhelmed during Mr. Trump’s term.

“It was coming too fast to process,” he said. “That was kind of the genius of it — is there was too much to keep track. It was like buses. Why get outraged about one thing when there’s going to be a new thing along in 15 minutes?”

“America was stronger and tougher and richer and safer and more confident,” Mr. Trump said at a recent rally in Rock Hill, S.C. “Think of it.”

Paul Schibbelhute, a retired engineer from Nashua, N.H., who voted for Mr. Trump twice, doesn’t dispute part of the argument.

“My 401(k) went through the roof, I made a ton of money, life was good. There was no inflation. There were good times,” he said. But Mr. Schibbelhute broke from Mr. Trump after he refused to concede his defeat in 2020 and voted for Ms. Haley in his state’s primary.

But Ms. Haley has failed to dislodge this version of Trump’s presidency from enough Republicans’ minds.

“Everybody talks about the economy they had under Donald Trump,” Ms. Haley said during a campaign event in New Hampshire in January. “It was good right? But at what cost? He put us $8 trillion in debt in four years. Our kids will never forgive us for this.”

For any event to be remembered, political psychologists say, it has to have mattered to you in the first place. James W. Pennebaker, a professor emeritus who researches collective memory at the University of Texas at Austin, said people were more likely to remember events that affect their lives, while events that are embarrassing or reflect negatively on people are more likely to be forgotten, he said.

Mr. Pennebaker noted that polarization and a fractured media environment meant that Americans were less likely to agree on set facts, preventing the country from creating a collective, shared memory.

“It is almost breathtaking to me,” he said. “We are living in a fascinating time when we see the other side threatening our existence, so we build up how great we are and denigrate how bad the other side is. And it entirely shapes not just the present but the past too.”

That pattern is particularly clear on how people remember Jan. 6. In the three years since the attack played out on television, Republicans have become less likely to describe the rioters as violent and more likely to absolve Mr. Trump of responsibility, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.

Professional Democrats, who have watched Mr. Trump eclipse Mr. Biden in public and private polling, continue to believe the former president isn’t as strong as the surveys indicate. They argue that if they inform enough people about Mr. Trump’s record in office that voters skeptical about Mr. Biden will vote for him anyway.

“You can look back and have that sort of collective amnesia of just how bad the policies were and just how harmful they were,” said Lori Lodes, the executive director of Climate Power, a liberal advocacy group whose polling found 52 percent of likely voters now approve of Mr. Trump’s time in office.

The majority support for Mr. Trump that shows up in polling, Ms. Lodes said, is “not there now. It is based on this false illusion of looking back.”

Jonathan Weisman and Chris Cameron contributed reporting.

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