Now can we stop speculating about President Trump's mental health?
While doubts about the president's grasp of reality simmered throughout last year, the dishy insider tales found in Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury briefly set them to a boil. That turned out to be a mistake: Trump scored an all-too-easy public relations victory by touting the results of a baseline cognitive test that asks patients to identify common animals and draw a clock. The president was said to have "aced" this test. The White House doctor said he found Trump to be "very sharp" and declared that the president performed "exceedingly well" on the screening test.
Bravo, Trump resistance. You just enabled Trump to score positive headlines merely by proving he doesn't yet belong in a nursing home!
As I warned last May, the game of medicalizing Trump's deficiencies of intellect and character was a comforting diversion from the fact that the American electorate did what it did despite knowing all it needed to know to make the right decision: Voting against Trump was the easiest call in human history, and, as a political community, we blew it.
One big reason is that many Americans — not a majority, but many — think, talk, and see the world as Trump does. Focusing on what is aberrant about him — the narcissism, the garish materialism, the fragile ego, the fathomless capacity to lie — threatens to overshadow what is all-too-typical about him. Maybe he's your uncle, father, or grandfather; surely you're acquainted with a roughly 70-year-old white American man who plays a ton of golf and watches Fox News Channel. Ask him how he feels about brown-skinned immigrants in general and Haitians in particular. Ask him what he thinks are the root causes of inner-city violence. You don't need to ask him. You already know. In this respect, Trump ally Chris Ruddy was not wrong to diminish shithole-gate as mere "kitchen table talk."
Notice what has happened to the average Trump approval rating since the release of Fire and Fury and his vulgar disparagement of entire nations: if anything, a slight uptick. But this shouldn't surprise us. There is no more leverage over the electorate to be gained by spotlighting Trump's abhorrent character and common intellect. Blind partisanship is certainly a factor. Yet the simple and depressing fact is that at least 35 percent of Americans hold views on race that are at least as abhorrent as Trump's. And they are not impressed by the intellectual class' harrumphing about the president's every stupid remark and solecism.
The nadir of Trump's presidency arrived in two stages last year: the debacle that was Republicans' attempt to repeal ObamaCare and the wall-to-wall coverage of a tax bill that overwhelmingly favored corporations and the wealthy. There's a lesson here: Your uncle/father/grandfather doesn't care if Trump grabs women without consent — but a considerable number of them do care when he threatens to grab their wallet.
None of this is to say that the drumbeat of scandals isn't talking its toll on Trump's presidency. Strong disapproval of Trump is unusually high for a president in his first year. The midterm elections are barely nine months away, and multiple signs point to an anti-Trump thumping despite robust economic fundamentals.
Yet the cautionary tale of 2016 remains: To repurpose a famous Mencken quote, no one ever went broke underestimating the American public's capacity to overestimate Donald Trump's intelligence.