If you listen close, you can already hear the gears turning in the heads of Donald Trump’s self-appointed excuse-makers. Their torment was exaggerated this week while the many checks that Donald Trump wrote during the campaign came due.
Among the revelations they apparently feel duty-bound to justify is the unsurprising discovery that the president’s long-time gastroenterologist, Dr. Harold Bornstein, allegedly allowed Trump to dictate an infamous 2016 letter praising the president’s health. Burdened with credibility-sapping superlatives typical of Trump, the letter was suspicious long before Trump appeared on Dr. Mehmet Oz’s daytime talk show where he declined to reveal his medical records as promised. Although the White House disputed a variety of claims that Bornstein made in the interview, it declined to comment on the specific allegation that Trump was the author of his own medical report.
Separately, according to Donald Trump’s new legal advisor, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the president and his allies have been lying for months about the nature of his financial relationship with the adult film star Stormy Daniels. On Wednesday night, Giuliani revealed that Trump reimbursed his attorney, Michael Cohen, for a six-figure payoff to Daniels just 11 days before the 2016 election–a payoff designed to keep her from talking about their alleged affair. He also indicated that Trump was fully aware of that transaction. Hours later, Trump confirmed Giuliani’s assertion. Previously, Trump and his allies had insisted the president did not know about the payment or any fund from which the hush money was drawn.
For Trump’s most committed apologists, any number of mechanically dismissive responses to these revelations is available. So what, many will say. These modest fibs are of a particular kind; they are unrelated to public policy or government, and they can be thrown on a pile of similar embellishments to which the president is prone. Yes: Presidents and politicians lie. These are the big leagues. Grow up.
Others are likely to adopt a flippant pose. Who cares? After all, everyone who voted for Donald Trump knew what they were getting when they pulled the lever: a mendacious philanderer. These are distractions from the booming economy at home and nuclear crises abroad. And guess what? The public isn’t paying attention. Donald Trump’s job approval rating is the best it has been in a year, and the GOP’s performance on the generic congressional ballot question is recovering apace.
When it comes to the idea that deliberate efforts to deceive the voting public don’t matter, the burden of proof is on Donald Trump’s defenders. As for the idea that the public doesn’t seem to care, though, that’s hard to argue against. But just because the president’s personal foibles are baked into the cake, that doesn’t mean that they sit well with the public or that voters will not register their dissatisfaction with this supposedly new normal at the polls.
American voters have an uncanny ability to correct for the perceived personality flaws in their presidents, but that peculiarity manifests in unpredictable ways. Barack Obama was perceived to be a professorial, aloof, emotionally distant president who was so convinced of the rightness of his own thinking that he came off as dismissive of voters’ concerns. Political observers assumed that the antidote to those traits would be an unpretentious, autodidactic toiler like, say, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Instead, it was Donald Trump—a man openly disdainful of the wisdom and expertise conveyed by the academy and hostile toward conventions to which Obama at least paid lip service, such as civility and decency. Trump was the anti-Obama; just not the one we’d expected.
Obama, too, was the answer to a question everyone was asking, but not the answer they’d initially expected to receive. How would voters respond to a deeply unpopular presidency helmed by the long-groomed product of a political dynasty: a swaggering, cocksure cowboy. And George W. Bush was the faithful, sober, sincere family man who represented a pendulum swing away from Bill Clinton’s excesses. And so on. Conventional wisdom can see the correction coming, but it rarely foresees the form that correction will take.
As was the case with Bill Clinton, Republican partisans have convinced themselves that voters did not care about presidential mendacity, especially when it relates only to personal weaknesses. After all, Clinton remained a popular figure despite being the first president to be impeached in 130 years. But voters did care. They may have priced deceitfulness into Clinton’s presidency, but they did not think that foible deserved to be rewarded. Though he presided over the booming digital-age economy and the end of the Cold War, voters delivered both chambers of Congress and the presidency to Republicans in 2000. And while he remains a popular figure among Democrats, Clinton’s legacy in office is viewed with such skepticism that his wife was compelled to spend much of her time seeking the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 either apologizing for or outright repudiating it.
So, yes, the public is well aware of what they got when Donald Trump was elected to the presidency. That might explain why Trump won the White House while losing the popular vote by the largest margin in history, and why his job-approval ratings remain anemic despite relative peace abroad and prosperity at home. Those conditions should impose some humility on the president and his supporters, but Trump’s movement is a reflection of Trump and “humble” is not in his vocabulary. It is, however, an American virtue, and you can be sure that it will make a comeback at some point. What form that comeback will take, though, is a mystery. And when it arrives, it will come with baggage all its own.