Up to this point Donald Trump’s presidency has largely been defined by the illegitimacy of his victory, the specter of his Russia scandal, the series of constitutional crises he’s engineered, and his own uniquely controversial nature. If you were expecting these things to swiftly take him down, consider that American politics wasn’t designed to account for any of Trump’s toxic garbage. But now we’re getting into a new phase, where Trump is being tested by more traditional standards – and it’s quickly wrecking him.
When you take a look back at what finished off George W. Bush, it came down to two words: Hurricane Katrina. The storm wasn’t his fault of course. But his response was stunningly inept, and even Americans who didn’t care about politics could see it. Americans were drowning in their own backyards, and yet this guy somehow couldn’t figure out how to send any relief down there? People wanted answers.
It turned out Bush’s FEMA Director was a wildly unqualified personal crony. And after the left had spent years accusing Bush of institutionally racist policies, the middle finally noticed that Bush was conspicuously failing to lift a finger to help a largely black city. It helped confirm for the middle that the left’s criticisms of Bush had been true all along. After that, Bush was done. His approval rating tanked, he lost Congress in the midterms, and it was all over. So what does this have to do with Donald Trump?
It’s taken nine months for Trump to have to face the kinds of crises that arise out of nowhere and test a president’s mettle. He handled the aftermath of the hurricanes in Texas and Florida fairly poorly, but not quite poorly enough for the American middle to figure out that he didn’t know what he was doing. Then a hurricane hit Puerto Rico. Two weeks later, he still hadn’t mentioned it publicly, and he’d sent barely any relief at all. Now he’s scrambling to cover his butt after the fact, but by now the public has already concluded that he botched his response. That perception won’t change.
All along, Trump has been demonizing Hispanic people who want to be a part of the United States. Sure enough, here he is, having barely lifted a finger to help a United States territory that’s 98% Hispanic. It serves to confirm what the left has been telling the middle all along: the guy’s a racist. He made it worse for himself this week when he referenced Puerto Rico in a manner which suggested he had just learned it was an island. The left has said all along that a random public figure can’t just walk into the presidency and be competent at it. Sure enough, Trump is coming off as totally clueless about what to do.
Then there’s the matter of Tom Price. Every president has to deal with a cabinet scandal somewhere along the way, because with that many cabinet members, one of them will inevitably screw something up. Trump put together – no exaggeration – the most corrupt and unsuitable cabinet of all time. The ineptness of his cabinet hasn’t gotten as much play as it would in any other administration, because his own scandals have dominated the headlines. But sure enough, Price has been caught burning up taxpayer dollars for needlessly excessive private flights. Trump’s hemming and hawing on whether to fire Price makes him look like a stammering idiot, once again belatedly confirming for the middle what the left has been saying about him all along.
When Donald Trump is removed from office, he’ll be ousted for the crimes he committed in relation to his Russia scandal. But these other, more traditional failures are what will soften him up to the point that his ouster for his Russia crimes will be politically possible. Every U.S. president, even a fake and illegitimate one like Trump, ends up having to deal with external crises and internal scandals. Presidents are largely defined by their responses. American politics is still figuring out what to do with a traitor who rigs his own election, but it knows full well what to make of a president who can’t keep his cabinet in line and botches a hurricane.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report