Retired four-star Marine Corps General John Kelly, former chief of staff to Donald Trump as president, spoke to The Washington Post the other day with exasperation, indeed with deep worry for the nation's well-being.
He'd been next to the guy--Trump--yet Republican primary votes aren't listening or caring when he tells them the man was utterly unfit--mercurial, dishonest, chaotic, an attempted abuser of the Justice Department, an admirer of dictators and interested only in himself and not at all in the country.
Gov. Sarah Sanders of Arkansas, former press spokesperson for Trump and staff member under Kelly, endorsed Trump the other day and said the country needed a return to his successful leadership.
So, they're different--military leader Kelly and trained political operative Sanders.
He is about service to the country and getting his orders followed by everyone except, as it turned out, an egomaniacal real estate baron from Queens. She is about service to her client-politician, in this case a wild man sized up not inaccurately by Kelly, though, Sanders analyzed, incompletely.
She had a little self-interest as well. It turned out she wanted to be governor of Arkansas, then something higher. She owed that opportunity to her profile, raised by Trump. And she owed it to her association with him, affording an endorsement for the governorship of a state where he was highly popular.
Here's the dynamic that has been described to me: There would be a high-level staff meeting in the Trump White House. Kelly would be there, of course, as chief of staff. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would be there. For whatever reason, Sarah Sanders would be there.
Trump would explode over his inability to do what he wanted under the constraints of law and sanity applied by Kelly and Tillerson.
The general and the secretary of state would go into the hall and commiserate about the craziness of the guy. They would talk loosely enough that their views would leak to the press.
Sanders and others would go to their offices and express resentment of Kelly's and Tillerson's self-interest. They would talk about their understanding through experience that Trump would have some other explosion later in the day. He likely would either forget the one they had just seen or be receptive the next day to dissuasion, to being talked down.
On the one hand you had a patriot concerned for the nation in a broadly principled way. He also was concerned about his complicity in irresponsible leadership.
On the other hand, you had a faithful employee reasoning or rationalizing--your choice--that a personally flawed president can be delicately managed as a justifiable means toward the end of advancing modern-day conservatism.
We are left with one prevailing fact that goes Sanders' way and one deep worry that goes Kelly's way.
The prevailing fact is that the nation is leaning toward Sanders' acceptance and not Kelly's deep worry.
The Post reported that Democrats say they have learned from focus groups that swing voters are not persuaded by attacks on Trump's personal behavior and character.
Swing voters tend to say they know all that and disapprove of Trump personally but that they managed to endure the guy's presidency once and might choose it again for economic or other quality-of-life reasons. They prefer that Democrats focus on specific and substantive policy failings.
Some swing voters might say that their faith transcends a political decision--that Jesus can be their Lord while Trump is their president.
They might say Jimmy Carter was the best man among recent presidents, but the poorest performer of the job. They might say Bill Clinton was personally disgraceful in a sexual relationship with a young intern while president, but that they approved of his job performance amid a good economy and deficit-reduction.
Now to the deep worry: It is that Trump promises a presidency of retribution and has an entirely new staff around him now. There is no assurance or sign that any of those around him disapprove of him to the point of opposing him or are inclined to manage him patiently, strategically and parentally, or at all.
So, the responsible American swing voter's job is to consider the political operative's bargain and consider at the same time the Marine general's fear for the country.
More to the point, it's to balance old-age decline in the incumbent president and competency concerns about the vice president against a vow of retribution from a man who warrants a four-star general's fear at worst and needs a devoted aide's management at best.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.