James Comey
Credit: Screengrab/C-SPAN

I want to follow up on a previous column in which I argued that an effective way for the opposition to wound President Donald Trump was to focus on his personal weakness. I claimed the reason most of the president’s supporters stand by him is due to his gift for projecting strength. Because he doesn’t have anything beneath that appearance (meaning, real strength), it’s fairly easy to expose Trump’s weaknesses. When he’s tweeting and pontificating, he sounds strong, but when challenged, Trump tends to back down fast. Ergo, he’s weak.

Importantly, it doesn’t matter how Trump is challenged so long as he is. Substance matters, but form matters more, because most people most of the time have something better to do than pay attention to politics. They have something better to do because anything is better than conflict, which is what politics is essentially about. No one should be faulted for that.

Most people most of the time don’t know much about politics, they don’t care to know much, and, anyway, life is complicated. So for most people, why Trump is challenged is beside the point.

Most people most of the time can’t assess for themselves whether the challenge is merit-based, because they have something better to do than pay attention to politics. What they can do is size up the challenger and size up Trump’s reaction to the challenger. When they see the president actually backs away from challenges, those who have misplaced their trust in the president—because he projects strength—will wobble. That’s when the tide might begin to turn.

Which brings me to James Comey.

Comey isn’t a woman. He isn’t a minority. He isn’t a politician. He isn’t a businessman. He isn’t a Democrat. He’s a lawman, a good cop, a revered leader at the top of his game. Plus, he defied his boss to inform Congress before the election of a new front in his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email service. He paid for that personally and maybe professionally, but no one, even his Democratic detractors, can say that was easy. It took guts. The point is that to Republicans who put strength at the top of a hierarchy of values measuring a man, Comey is peerless.

Moreover, Comey handles himself well on television, coming off during yesterday’s testimony like an eager boy scout wanting to do the right thing for himself, his fellow cops and the red, white and blue. He’s polite and courteous and deferential. All of these qualities were on display during his testimony, creating a picture of man above politics, above conflict, and who cared only about justice. So when he came out Thursday with an opening statement blasting the president for defaming him and the FBI, that was powerful. More powerful was that Comey called Trump a liar. That hurt.

Comey wounded Trump.

Making things worse for Trump is, of course, Trump himself. After his attorney responded to Comey’s testimony, suggesting Comey was a liar, it was clear the president was not going to strike a diplomatic pose. He could have said that he respects the former director’s testimony and looks forward to the day when all the facts are known. Instead, he appears ready to do what he has always done—when hit, hit back twice as hard. That attitude is central to the appearance of strength, key to why Trump’s supporters like him. But that attitude, in this new context, is his undoing. He’s demanding that Americans to ask themselves a decisive question: Who do you trust?

Think about it. There is no coherent story about what happened during the election. Even those, like me, who read ravenously can’t get their heads around how the Russians interfered with the election, only that 17 US intelligence agencies say they did. They don’t know why Trump fired Comey, what that has to do with Russia, and why all of that matters. But, again, since because most people most of the time don’t know much about politics and don’t really want to know much about politics, they are going to use their best judgment. They know something big is happening, and those who do like the president must contend with the fact that the former head of the FBI—who seems like a decent man—called Trump a liar. The choice is then who do you trust.

Trust and strength are two sides of the same psycho-political coin. Supporters trust him because he’s strong. He’s strong because they trust him. Remove one and the con is over. The more the president fights, the worse the firestorm will get, which will arouse his instinct to fight, and so on until the end. His popularity has never been good, but when one of these aspects—trust or strength—stops reinforcing the other, the 35 percent who have stuck with him will begin devising ways on their own of telling other Republicans they supported Trump but always had doubts.

As I said, this is my contention, but there is a way to test it. Keep an eye on the Republicans, especially in the Senate. Evan McMullin noted on Twitter: “It spells trouble for the President that a former FBI director called him a liar under oath and not a single Republican senator refuted it.” I would add that Marco Rubio and Richard Burr, both members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, are establishing a context in which Trump’s actions, right or wrong, are connected Russia. That’s the heart of the scandal, as Martin Longman noted yesterday, far more than mere obstruction. Now that Comey has wounded Trump’s credibility, perhaps lethally, it’s just a few more steps before the Republicans in the Senate start hinting an exit strategy.

We have known for months that the president is a serial liar, but as long as he appears to be strong, his supporters didn’t notice, because, again, most people most of the time don’t know enough about politics to know the president is lying. What they can do is size up a president. I expect the tide to turn eventually now that nearly every newspaper in the country leads with: “Comey says Trump a liar.”

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

John Stoehr

Follow John on Twitter @johnastoehr . John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer. This piece originally appeared in The Editorial Board.