The winds of the left and of the right swoosh in partisan vitriol of all sorts that have come to dominate the American body politic and our country’s political discourse. This is not scientific but let’s say that these rabid partisans represent 20 percent of the electorate on the right and 20 percent on the left. That leaves the vast middle of 60 percent, some of whom are Republicans, some of whom are Democrats, and some of whom are Independents. These folks have a couple things in common. They want the government to work, to function and they want the president to be, well, presidential.
Neither of these things are happening, which is exactly why—and this is scientific—Trump’s approval ratings are below 40 percent and the lowest in history for any president in the first six months except Gerald Ford, who had just pardoned Richard Nixon. More troubling for Trump and the Republicans is the fact that the intensity is all on the anti-Trump side; 48 percent strongly disapprove of how Trump is doing the job while just 25 percent strongly approve.
On healthcare, repeal and replace has turned into renege and repeat. There’s been no movement on tax reform, the immigration ban has been mired in courts and a special counsel has been appointed to investigate Russian meddling in the last election and possible collusion with those around the president, including members of his family. Then there’s the Twitter rants, the awkward foreign trips and his ongoing spat with most of America’s news outlets.
None of these things by themselves would matter to most of the vast middle 60 percent described above. Even in combination, the American middle is the greatest force for political forgiveness in the history of the world. The great middle will always give their president the benefit of the doubt. It’s the American way. It comes with having earned the office. It comes with the office itself and it is a permanent fixture of American style democracy. Until, that is, the president himself eviscerates the benefit of the doubt privilege by his behavior. That is what Trump has done.
He lacks decorum, even at times common decency. He is impossible to staff, which makes him poorly served by the staff that he has. He has made an enemy out of American intelligence agencies. This is potentially really bad for national security but also just a poor calculation. He has been completely inept at working with Congress. The White House has displayed an amateurishness that is unprecedented.
The great middle likes gravitas in their president, comity and civility. On healthcare, for example, it was clear that the president’s understanding of the complex issue was minimal. He was more concerned about the optics of delivering on a promise than actually improving the system. He could not articulate what that would look like.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the White House, he refused to shake her hand, badly mistaking this gesture as one of strength. Many in the middle viewed it as petty. Most Americans would like a president that is above the fray, not in the middle of it. The drip, drip of the Russian affair is making the administration look bad. But Trump has not shown any proclivity to get it under control. The events are running him, not the other way around.
Americans don’t like this. They like a president that is resolute, in control, understated at times, that understands policy nuances and that can not only talk about a deal but get one done. When they get this from their president, they will always give him the benefit of the doubt.
Trump has blown the benefit of the doubt privilege. The good news is that it’s still not too late to get it back.