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Trump calling fallen soldiers ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’ is a story about his character that probably won’t hurt him

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President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump place their hands over their hearts during TAPS at the 9/11 Observance Ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, 2017. (DOD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

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Many of Donald Trump’s opponents are certain that reports that he had referred to fallen troops as “losers” and “suckers”– and was befuddled by the idea that they would fight for anything other than their own interests–will finally open up some Republican eyes and cost Trump in the polls.

Judging by the five-alarm reaction to the story by the White House and its conservative media allies, they aren’t alone.

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But I don’t think it will have much impact because it’s fundamentally a story about Trump’s sleazy character. There’s been a consistent pattern to the relatively small shifts in Trump’s approval rating over the course of his historically unpopular presidency: When the media focus on substantive harms he has inflicted on Americans (not foreigners), his favorability declines while stories about his character don’t move the needle at all.

I may be wrong. Perhaps the fact that this is one of the few times that an example of Trump’s perfidy has stayed in the news for several days might take a toll. As of this writing, no polls have been released that were conducted after the story broke.

But the pattern has been pretty clear. Trump’s worst period of polling occurred in 2017, when he was leading the latest Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act–without any proposal to replace it. This would have stripped health insurance from over 20 million people, eliminated cost-sharing subsidies for millions more and allowed insurers to once again refuse to cover pre-existing conditions.

He rebounded at the end of 2017, after the debate over the GOP’s tax cuts had ended with their passage, and his numbers remained pretty stable until the disastrous consequences of his bumbling mismanagement of Covid-19 became the big story. In FiveThirtyEight’s average, his net approval rating has inched up as the country passed what will likely prove to be the first peak in the pandemic and the public’s attention has shifted, at least to a degree, to the Movement for Black Lives and the often violent right-wing backlash that it has elicited.

Stories about Trump’s character are a different matter. The most prominent one of the 2016 cycle, the release of a recording of Donald Trump bragging about grabbing beautiful women “by the pussy,” broke on October 16, when Trump’s net favorability in Real Clear Politics’ average was -25.7. It remained virtually unchanged over the next ten days before starting to rise after former FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that he was reopening an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Since then, there have been any number of stories about Trump’s low character that people were certain would bring down his polling numbers but didn’t.

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I think the reason for this is straightforward. Trump is, by any objective standard, a dirtbag and that’s been clear for a long time. It was widely reported that he was a mobbed up real estate developer who hired undocumented immigrants, stiffed contractors and left investors holding the bag when his businesses failed. He ran a number of high-profile scams, like Trump University, looted his own charity and peddled the racist Birther conspiracy theory. He’s been accused of sexual harassment and assault by dozens of women. He’s insulted the parents of fallen troops, said of John McCain that he liked pilots who weren’t captured, told Black Democratic lawmakers to go back to the shithole countries where they came from and on and on.

For his most loyal supporters, this stuff is easily brushed off as fake news or “locker room talk.” They actually like him for being a “genuine” guy. Many seem to think that “alpha males” are supposed to be self-centered and obnoxious. For the 20-30 percent of Republicans who don’t like his character but support him anyway because he appoints conservative judges or just because he isn’t a Democrat, they’ve made that calculation a while back and one more damning story about Trump being a colossal asshole, as even some of his defenders acknowledge, isn’t likely to change their minds. The rest of us have long found his behavior appalling and this latest example only confirms our view.

In other words, Trump’s character has already been factored in by voters and their judgements are reflected in his current polling numbers.

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Consider a recent poll of military personnel conducted by The Military Times. It found Biden leading Trump by four points, and it also found Trump’s approval rating among service members way under water, at 38-50. More active-duty military personnel strongly disapprove of Trump (42%) than approve of him overall. This is a group that skews heavily Republican, and favored Trump over Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin at this point in 2016.

Will this new revelation about his contempt for the military sway the 38 percent of service members who approve of him today? It’s hard to see why it would. Last fall, Trump blasted General Jim Mattis, who was reportedly beloved by those troops; in January, it was reported that Trump called the military’s senior staff “a bunch of dopes and babies.” And that wasn’t anything new–according to The Washington Post, “Trump had a long track record of incendiary and disparaging remarks about veterans and military service” that dates back to at least the 1990s.

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Trump is an awful person by any measure, but many of his supporters like that about him. His character is baked into the cake at this point. So it’s likely that just as the conventional wisdom held that Trump would benefit by positioning himself as a “law and order” candidate who would quell unrest in the cities–until that narrative fell apart when evidence came in that voters trust Joe Biden more on that issue–I think we’ll see in the coming days that this new conventional wisdom doesn’t hold up any better.

If that proves to be the case, Trump’s opposition would be wise to try to once again focus the public’s attention on the pandemic that has killed almost 200,000 Americans on his watch and resulted in more job losses than under any other president in history–on the tangible harms he’s caused.

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