The president has been understandably confident in his supporters. They appreciate his efforts, admire his accomplishments (Justice Neil Gorsuch, ISIS’ setbacks), claim bragging rights for possibly related occurrences (the stock market’s rise), and feel sympathy for him as an outsider up against the swamp. They see his roughness as evidence of his authenticity, so he doesn’t freak them out every day. In this they are like Sarah Palin’s supporters, who saw her lack of intellectual polish as proof of sincerity. At her height, in 2008, she had almost the entire Republican Party behind her, and was pushed forward most forcefully by those who went on to lead Never Trump. But in time she lost her place through antic statements, intellectual thinness and general strangeness.
The same may well happen—or be happening—with Donald Trump.
One reason is that there is no hard constituency in America for political incompetence, and that is what he continues to demonstrate.
The first sign of political competence is knowing where you stand with the people. Gallup this week had him at 36% approval, 59% disapproval. Rasmussen has him at 41%, with 57% disapproving. There have been mild ups and downs, but the general picture has been more or less static. Stuart Rothenberg notes that at this point in his presidency Barack Obama had the approval of 48% of independents. Mr. Trump has 33%.
He proceeds each day with the confidence of one who thinks his foundation firm when it’s not—it’s shaky. His job is to build support, win people over through persuasion, and score some legislative victories that will encourage a public sense that he is competent, even talented.
The story of this presidency so far is his inability to do this. He thwarts himself daily with his dramas. In the thwarting he does something unusual: He gives his own supporters no cover. They back him at some personal cost, in workplace conversations and at family gatherings. They are in a hard position. He leaves them exposed by indulging whatever desire seizes him—to lash out, to insult, to say bizarre things. If he acted in a peaceful and constructive way, he would give his people cover.
He acts as if he takes them for granted. He does not dance with the ones that brung him.
Asked by reporters why he hadn’t issued a statement on the death of four U.S. soldiers in Niger, he either misunderstood or deflected the question by talking about how he writes to and calls the families of the fallen. Other presidents, he said, did not do as much—“some presidents didn’t do anything”—including Mr. Obama. When former Obama staffers pushed back he evoked the death of Chief of Staff John Kelly’s son Robert, a Marine first lieutenant, in Afghanistan: “You could ask Gen. Kelly, did he get a call from Obama?” Mr. Kelly, a private and dignified man, was said to be surprised at the mention of his son.
Soon after, Mr. Trump called Myeshia Johnson, widow of Army sergeant La David T. Johnson, and reached her in the car on the way to receive her husband’s casket. Someone put the call on speakerphone. A Democratic congresswoman in the car later charged that Trump had been disrespectful. In fairness, if the congresswoman quoted him accurately, it is quite possible that “He knew what he was signing up for” meant, in the president’s mind, “He heroically signed up to put his life on the line for his country,” and “But still it must hurt,” meant “I can’t imagine the grief you feel even with your knowledge that every day he put himself in harm’s way.”
And indeed Mr. Kelly, in a remarkable White House briefing Thursday, recounted what Gen. Joseph Dunford, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had told then-Gen. Kelly in 2010, when Robert died: “He was doing exactly what he wanted to do. . . . He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1%. He knew what the possibilities were, because we were at war.”
Mr. Kelly was moving, fully credible, and as he spoke you had the feeling you were listening to a great man. It was unfortunate that when the controversy erupted, the president defaulted to anger, and tweets. News stories were illustrated everywhere by the picture of the beautiful young widow sobbing as she leaned on her husband’s flag-draped casket. Those are the real stakes and that is the real story, not some jerky sideshow about which presidents called which grieving families more often.
This week Sen. John McCain famously gave a speech in Philadelphia slamming the administration’s foreign-policy philosophy as a “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” Fair enough—the famous internationalist opposes Trumpian foreign-policy notions. There are many ways presidents can respond to such criticism—thoughtfully, with wit or an incisive rejoinder.
Mr. Trump went on Chris Plante’s radio show to tell Sen. McCain he’d better watch it. “People have to be careful because at some point I fight back,” he said. “I’m being very nice. I’m being very, very nice. But at some point I fight back, and it won’t be pretty.”
FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were pretty tough hombres, but they always managed to sound like presidents and not, say, John Gotti. Mr. McCain, suffering from cancer, evoked in his reply his experience as a prisoner of war: “I’ve faced far greater challenges than this.”
That, actually, is how presidents talk.
I must note I get a lot of mail saying this is all about style—people pick on Mr. Trump because he isn’t smooth, doesn’t say the right words. “But we understand him.” “Get over these antiquated ideas of public dignity, we’re long past that.” But the problem is not style. A gruff, awkward, inelegant style wedded to maturity and seriousness of purpose would be powerful in America. Mr. Trump’s problem has to do with something deeper—showing forbearance, patience, sympathy; revealing the human qualities people appreciate seeing in a political leader because they suggest a reliable inner stature.
Meanwhile Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist, goes forward with at least partial support from the president and vows to bring down the Republican establishment. But Mr. Trump needs to build, not level. He needs a Republican House and Senate if for no other reason than one day Robert Mueller will file his report, and it will be leaked, and something will be in there because special counsels always get something. It is Republican majorities—the Republican establishment—that the president will need to help him. He will need the people he’d let Mr. Bannon purge.
Meanwhile polls say the Republican nominee for Republican Alabama’s open Senate seat is neck and neck with his Democratic opponent.
Meanwhile the president absolutely has to win on tax reform after his embarrassing loss on ObamaCare. He shouldn’t be in this position, with his back to the wall.
None of this speaks of competence. And again, in America there is no hard constituency for political incompetence. Mr. Trump should keep his eye on Sarah Palin’s social media profile. She has 1.4 million Twitter followers, and her Facebook page has a “Shop Now” button.