Could the Latest Trump Stories Be Different From the Rest?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Donald Trump in 1995 with then-wife Marla Maples and daughter Tiffany, about whose potential future beauty Trump was talking at the time. (Jeff Christensen / Reuters)

The latest stories I’m talking about are those involving the “John Miller” and “John Barron” hoaxes, in which a man whose accent and cadence are identical to Trump’s brags in the third-person about Trump’s greatness and sexual appeal; and the NYT’s big take-out this morning on Trump’s patterns in dealing with women, complementing previous reports of his assessing the physical hotness of one of his daughters as a toddler and of the other as a grown woman. If you’re ready for a can’t-unsee-it version of the toddler case, try this.

No previous stories have stopped Trump, or even slowed him down. Last summer I wrongly assumed that the rules of political gravity that have applied to other media-age candidates would affect Trump as well. Just as Rick Perry had run into trouble four years ago for his debate brain-freeze, just as Marco Rubio suffered serious damage this year for a similar unfortunate minute, so Donald Trump might have problems for mocking John McCain as a loser, or attacking George W. Bush as a liar, or inventing stories about Muslims rioting in New Jersey or a military background for himself or his own opposition to the Iraq war.

But of course he didn’t have problems. So I am hesitant to speculate about what else might dampen his appeal. But here is why the latest stories seem potentially different. They are about something everyone can understand.


Donald Trump’s positions about “policy” have in many cases been reckless (nuclear-rearmament for Japan), ignorant (anything involving taxes and budgets), destructive (a religious test for immigrants), or preposterous (“Mexico will pay for that wall”). And in a few cases they have been refreshing, for instance his anti-neocon international views.

But I think everyone realizes that, good or bad, his policies aren’t really what matters. That is because they are not really policies. They’re just what Trump has happened to say most recently. He’ll say something else during the campaign, do something else if he became president. Maybe better, maybe worse, who knows. It would be a crap shoot.

The real problem with Trump involves not policies, which can change, but temperament, which does not. A 70-year-old man (as Trump would be on inauguration day) who doesn’t know what the “nuclear triad” is, or why Japan has a “self-defense force” but not a normal military, can learn those things. But his temperament is not going to change. We are already seeing the man he is going to be, the traits he would bring to office.

A sobering lesson from the time I spent working for a president long ago, and observing others since then, is that more than knowledge, more than a specific cast of advisors or type of experience, temperament matters most in how presidents do their job. (More background here.) That is the problem with Donald Trump.

Even if I agreed with Trump on every item of policy (and I do on some), I would find his temperament dangerously disqualifying for the job. His outbursts; his narcissism; his inability to rise above challenges to his dignity or, yes, his hand size — these are essentially the opposite of what we want to see in a president.

For me these are additional reasons not to support Trump, who was not going to get my vote anyway. But what about people who are seriously considering him? I think there is the possibility that the tape, and the stories of the women, could have an effect that “policy” doesn’t. The reason is that they present situations that most people can “understand,” but cannot understand.

Anyone who listens to the tape can understand that Trump was bragging about his sexual and other greatness — and that he was faking and lying to do so. Anyone who reads the NYT story (and this) can understand what it would mean to openly judge women over whom you have economic power, mainly by their looks (especially breasts and butts), or talk in a similar way about your baby daughter. People might skip past details of budget policy or trade plans, but they can grasp what this is about.

Faking your voice on the phone? Yeah, I might have done that in junior high school, on “is your refrigerator running?”-style late night phone pranks. But doing it in your forties, to a magazine reporter, flatout falsifying your identity in order to brag about yourself? And sizing up your own children in sexual terms? People who have never heard of the TPP or the “carried interest” clause would know how to assess these situations. And they would recognize that Trump has done things normal people wouldn’t do.

By definition people who run for president aren’t “normal.” They’re all narcissists, they’re all driven, they all have to be ruthless in ways most of us are spared. But even among that group, the man Trump is something different. Maybe people who don’t care about budgets or the nuclear triad will notice these stories and ask themselves: seriously, is something wrong with this guy?

Or maybe they won’t. We’ve still got nearly six months to go.