It was not the sort of vacation for which I’d pined. One where I could sink my feet in the sand and my eyes into Nelson DeMille’s new novel without staying tethered to news sites during the dog days of August. It used to be that vacationing while a president was away was safe for a member of the media, but there’s been no such respite in the age of Trump. Instead it was: tragedy in Charlottesville, Va., terror in Spain, and the banishment of Steve Bannon from the White House. Nevertheless, my time away gave me the opportunity for big-picture reflection. Maybe profound, perhaps wrong. You’ll decide which, but here goes:
Donald Trump is not the nation’s primary problem. If only it were as easy as replacing one man or even riding out two terms to solve our grievances. But what we face is worse than that and will require more work than any one-time exercising of the franchise by either our leaders or the populace.
Don’t misunderstand, when the president hesitated in his initial reaction to marchers shouting “Sieg Heil” and “Jews will not replace us,” he placed a stain on his tenure that will never be erased. His first condemnation of the “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides” asserted a moral equivalency where there is none. Three days later, he doubled down by placing “blame on both sides” and then, on Tuesday, sought to convince a large crowd in Phoenix that those responses were appropriate by pulling the written statements out of his pocket but reading selectively what he’d actually said. #Sad.
Still, our problems run much deeper than any one person. That’s a point overlooked by his harshest critics, who are so vehement in their opposition they delude themselves into thinking his removal from office will be a panacea. They speak increasingly of the 25th Amendment’s never-used remedy to remove a president who is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” and were heartened when a member of his own party, Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), said recently that Trump has not demonstrated the “stability” or “competence” necessary to effectively lead the country. Then former director of national intelligence James Clapper added fuel to that fire by telling CNN anchor Don Lemon the Phoenix speech was “objectionable on so many levels.”
“I really question his ability to be, his fitness to be, in this office, and I also am beginning to wonder about his motivation for it,” Clapper said. “Maybe he is looking for a way out.”
Next month, these conversations will only grow louder when a book is released in which two dozen mental health professionals argue that the president is dangerously mentally ill and poses a clear and present danger to the nation. That’s not going to help, either. No good comes from mental-health professionals diagnosing a patient they’ve never met, much less examined. Just think of the precedent that will set.
No, getting rid of Trump might salve some wounds in the short-term, but it won’t permanently heal the deep division in the nation. To the contrary, it might further alienate a significant part of the country that is still not ready for anger management. Yes, there are signs of some fracturing among the 46 percent of voters who put him in office. Consider that a Marist poll last week showed that one-fifth of Trump supporters in the critical states of Michigan (21 percent), Pennsylvania (21 percent), and Wisconsin (22 percent) now say they are “embarrassed” by his conduct as president. But he still has the support of most of those who voted for him and, for many, that faith is unshakable. Six in 10 (61 percent) supporters surveyed told Monmouth University pollsters they cannot think of anything Trump could do to make them disapprove of his performance. A similar number (57 percent), who see things in opposite terms, said they will never change their disapproval of him.
So we face an enormous divide, not just about President Trump, but also concerning the issues unfolding on his watch. (In the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville, a Survey Monkey poll showed that 87 percent of Republicans agreed with his assessing blame on “both sides” of that violence.)
Still, let’s not conflate those who supported the president’s initial Charlottesville statements with an endorsement of the Nazi marchers themselves. The latter are irredeemable. But the former are still our neighbors and we need to figure out a way to reach them. I’m talking not about torch-bearing racists, but those who voted for Trump out of a sense of desperation and fear that the American dream is dying. The many noncollege-educated white males who are unsettled by a changing demographic, job loss, and who deeply feel the impact of income inequality. Where the Democratic Party has failed to offer hope to this formerly reliable constituency, Trump was able to fill the void by castigating trade deals and immigration policy, when in fact they’ve lost stature due to dual forces of technology and globalization.
The greatest challenge we face is in reengaging his core supporters in a national conversation based on evidence — not emotion. That will require less condescension from the left and no more lumping of them with the worst elements of the alt-right. But for that to happen, it will take much more than the downfall of Donald Trump. It will require the driving of a wedge between them and the provocateurs on whom they are overly reliant for their news and information. Fix that and we will be better suited for the long term.
In the meantime, Trump is a manifestation of what ails us, but his departure from office — whenever that might come — will not mark the end of domestic hostilities.
Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel 124. He hosts “Smerconish” at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN. @smerconish