Fire and Fury is nothing if not exciting. How much truth there is to all the stories about Trump in the White House is unknown; not even author Michael Wolff is certain—an admission which does not bolster his credibility but rather feeds, supports, and reinforces President Trump’s complaints about FAKE NEWS.
Yet Wolff’s anecdotes about Trump’s shock at winning the White House when he thought (and apparently wanted) to lose the election, Trump’s alleged ignorance of basic issues, and the allegedly low opinions of Trump attributed to his aides all feed, support, and reinforce the claims of Trump’s opponents who say he is cognitively and mentally unfit to be President. On balance, Fire and Fury hurts Trump’s prospects for remaining in office.
Yet President Trump still has much going for him; impeachment is not inevitable. The Republicans may be able to retain power, especially should their newly-passed tax reform law prove popular. Right now, its critics are denouncing the new law as giving big business too many benefits and the middle class not enough. The public, so far, seems to agree. But should wage- and salary-earners begin to see bigger paychecks in 2018 as the IRS recalculates withholdings, or should more corporations grant bonuses to their employees, public opinion may swing in the GOP’s favor, and election losses may be less than either the GOP currently fears or the Democrats hope for now. Should the Republicans retain the House, they can block Democratic impeachment efforts; should they retain enough seats in the Senate, they can block Trump’s conviction and removal even if the Democrats win the House and thereby win the power to impeach him.
And President Trump has one other powerful asset that could, if he were to become more presidential, make him very popular: The state of the economy. End-of-the-year stories about the economy report the stock market indices are up, unemployment is low, and inflation is under control. These conditions normally make the incumbent president, regardless of his party or policies, most popular and politically invincible.
This is not necessarily fair. Presidents have far less control over the economy than the public thinks. Their powers are limited by budgetary requirements and the independence of the Federal Reserve System from presidential control, to name just a few limits on any president. Moreover, Democrats are loudly proclaiming that today’s strong economy is the product of President Obama’s policies, that President Trump had nothing to do with the current state of the economy, and hence deserves no credit for its strength.
But no matter: The historical record is clear—whenever the economy is strong, the President always gets the credit, no matter how little he contributed to economic growth and strength. And whenever the economy is weak, the incumbent president always gets the blame, no matter how blameless he might really be. Besides, nobody can doubt that if President Trump had inherited a weak economy from President Obama, the Democrats would today be blaming Trump for it anyway.
But to date President Trump has not yet reaped the political benefits that normally come to a president presiding over a strong economy. He could, however, begin to do so if he were to behave more presidential.
Admittedly, this is easier said than done. At times, President Trump has shown he can act with the dignity, restraint, and seriousness we expect of a president—when he wants too. He showed as much at his inauguration, in his address to Congress, when he’s traveled abroad, and when he issues formal statements and makes formal speeches without deviating from his scripts.
The problem is he doesn’t want to be presidential often enough. Too often he’s launched Twitter attacks, against his political opponents, as well as against prominent figures in entertainment, sports, and the news media. He uses the prominence of his position to criticize or otherwise conduct feuds with those he perceives to be his enemies. Whatever the merits of particular outbursts, on balance he succeeds in diminishing himself more often than he wins points over his targets.
President Trump may not know this. Or he may not care. He may believe that, in continuing to exhibit the sort of behavior for which he became well known before the election, he is retaining the loyalty of his base and shoring up his support for the political battles ahead. But he’s making himself less popular in the wider American society, and this is contributing to his relatively low approval ratings, while providing more and more ammunition for those who would bring him down.
So if President Trump wants to retain his office following the 2018 midterm elections, he should cool his jets, behave more presidential, and thereby improve his image. A currently strong and robust economy and the popularity and success of at least some of his programs—reduced illegal border crossings, a more assertive and nationalistic foreign policy, and possibly Republican tax reform, will help him, but only so much. He must help himself more. Whether he wants to, or can do so, remains to be seen. But’s safe to say that if he doesn’t shape up, then he, and the entire country, will encounter more fire and fury.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.