President Trump is uninformed, gullible, mentally faltering and dangerous, if you believe the scandalous new expose by journalist Michael Wolff. More than that, virtually all of Trump’s senior aides supposedly consider him incompetent and view it as their mission to save America from him.
What’s new about Wolff’s account isn’t the discord or strife evident in Trump’s White House, but the disdain Trump’s senior-most attendees apparently feel toward their boss. As the politico-media establishment piles on, however, it’s worth keeping in mind that Trump has a political superpower none of his minions or competitors possesses: A mind-meld with The Alienated American.
As everybody knows, Trump didn’t win the presidency in 2016 because of his policy ideas. And he didn’t win because of James Comey or Russian interference or fake news on Facebook. Trump won because he connected with voters who are fed up with political elites who mostly serve their own interests. Many candidates promise change, but Trump’s blunt style and disregard for norms made him seem like he meant it. Judging by his performance in office so far, he did.
If Trump is as obtuse as his many critics and even some supporters seem to think, then how did he outsmart a huge field of experienced and well-funded candidates, including the inheritors of the Bush and Clinton political dynasties? As a reminder, Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton won the lower- and upper-income vote—but Trump won the middle, including voters with household income between $50,000 and $200,000. Clinton won voters who are satisfied with government; Trump won those who are dissatisfied, a group that has swollen in recent years. And voters said they trusted Trump slightly more than Clinton on the economy.
Trump appeals to people who are tawdry and crass, as he is. But his appeal goes well beyond that stereotype. Clinton won the college-educated vote in 2016, but Trump still snagged 44% of the vote among college grads and 37% of the vote among those with advanced degrees. That’s hardly nothing.
Business owners also support Trump. Important lobbying groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Businesses—which represent big and small companies alike—broadly back Trump’s agenda, especially his push for tax cuts and deregulation. Here at Yahoo Finance, we hear routinely from business owners who feel we’re too harsh on Trump. Many are grateful that a U.S. president, for the first time in decades, is trying to plow aside a never-ending avalanche of government rules that bury many businesses.
Trump is often his own worst enemy, with a poor grasp of limits. He frequently pushes too hard or too far, alienating folks who might otherwise be in his corner. But that’s clearly part of his personality, as well as his political identity, and it underscores the authenticity that helped put him in office. Trump might be a white nationalist or a misogynist (or play one on TV), but to supporters he’s not a hypocrite pretending to be somebody he’s not, like so many other politicians. That’s why they put up with his uglier impulses.
Trump’s actual policies could hamper his appeal. The tax cuts he’s so proud of disproportionately benefit businesses and the wealthy, which could leave the “forgotten men and women” he championed during the campaign feeling abandoned. If he follows through on promises to slap tariffs on Chinese and Mexican imports, it would push up prices, hurting working-class voters more than most.
Sill, anybody who believes Trump is as thick or unhinged as the Wolff portrait suggests must think he’s an idiot savant who connected with alienated Americans entirely by accident. As if Trump is some kind of Chauncey Gardner who’s not even aware he’s president.
Unlikely. Trump is not an effective political leader, so far, but he did manage to become a real-estate billionaire and a reality-show celebrity—two industries that aren’t exactly kind to dupes or knaves. True, Trump’s businesses filed for bankruptcy four times, but it’s also true that Trump has hundreds of businesses and most are successful. He is probably the richest president ever.
Wolff, in his book, recounts a moment in which a foreigner unfamiliar with the concept asked Trump what “white trash” is. “They’re people just like me,” Trump supposedly responded. “Only they’re poor.” Does any other politician think that way? Some cross over from the wrong side of the tracks, but that’s not really the point. Trump, who grew up well off, came from the right side of the tracks, yet somehow understands the other side. The buzzards circling around him should never forget that.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman