The responses by both supporters and opponents of the President to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House have given pride of place to questions about the president’s intelligence and overall mental health – questions that have arisen intermittently as subjects of public discussion throughout both the 2016 campaign and the first year of his presidency.
Inflamed by the president’s very widely-reported response to questions about his competence both on Twitter and in a news conference at Camp David on Saturday, these matters were front and center on the Sunday morning news show and throughout social media over the weekend.
....Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart. Crooked Hillary Clinton also played these cards very hard and, as everyone knows, went down in flames. I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star.....
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2018
....to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius....and a very stable genius at that!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2018
Aside from inviting discussion of the president’s own, and various, self-descriptions, one overarching question is how another news cycle (or three) focused on Trump’s basic fitness for office might influence public attitudes toward the president.
Polling in Texas, at least, suggests two key points. First, as one might expect, there are stark partisan differences in Texans’ assessments of Trump’s traits, with Republicans’ rating him much more positively than Democrats. These differences are unsurprising, but still notable given their magnitude in the context of Trump’s outlier status in terms of his preparation for the office of the presidency and his unorthodox (and combative) style. Second, the widespread view of the president as a strong leader among Republicans appears likely to counterbalance somewhat less faith in his other qualities – qualities that one might expect to form a sound basis for judging presidents, at lease based on precedents.
The most recent University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll included an extensive battery of questions about Trump’s attributes, summarized in the figure below. Among the traits included, he scored highest among Republicans (82 percent) on the “strong leader” quality. While Trump scored relatively well across the spectrum of traits explored, it’s the differences that are illuminating, and in many cases, the share of respondents disagreeing that proved most interesting. While 77 percent of Republicans felt that Trump is knowledgeable and competent (two separate items), only 68 percent rated him as honest, and 62 percent rated him as having the appropriate temperament to be president. More to the point, a quarter of Texas Republicans offered that Trump lacks the appropriate temperament (but whether this is a negative feature of the man or a positive amongst his supporters is a matter of interpretation, and beyond the scope of this particular question).
|is a strong leader?||7||82|
|cares about people like you?||4||73|
|is honest and trustworthy?||4||68|
|has the temperament to serve effectively as president?||5||62|
The events of the last few days might focus our attention on how the balance of these trait assessments might reconfigure themselves in the minds of voters – if at all. Given the extremely negative ratings among Democrats and the somewhat positive ratings among Republicans, the key question would seem to be whether coverage of the book and Trump’s response will activate doubts among Republicans by re-prioritizing the traits that they think about when they think about the President.
As of October, doubts about the president were not much in evidence among Republicans, and were seemingly manageable as long as Trump remained in character as a “strong leader” – that is, continued being unapologetically unorthodox in his presidential profile and publicly aggressive with his detractors. This strategy seemed to have worked through October, even as his opponents have been patiently waiting for it to fail. And while there has been some erosion in his national approval ratings, there has not been any significant erosion in Republican support here in Texas.
This could change if some in the Republican coalition decide that their standard bearer is unfit for office. Trump, however, has consistently defied expectations that his performance would lead his supporters to desert him. Such expectations hovered first over his campaign, and their failure made manifest in his winning the GOP nomination, the allegiance of Republican voters, and then the presidency. However tempered by his unexpected success, expectations that Trump’s persona and performance will finally alienate his supporters remain in air – and remain just as unfilled as they were last November and in the months that followed. The breathless response over the weekend to the latest sequence of events triggered by Wolff’s book – see, for example, Chuck Todd’s affect as he interviewed the author on Meet the Press Sunday – seems likely to lead to another round of deflation among Trump’s detractors. However unorthodox he remains, he continues to benefit from the most ordinary of political assets – partisan affiliation in the service of the party’s figurehead.