That’s why, of all the quotes and anecdotes in Bob Woodward’s new book, the one that may hurt the president most is his calling Attorney General Jeff Sessions a “dumb Southerner.”
Much of the rest of what Woodward uncovers Trump doing and saying, while great, original reporting and apparently mostly recorded, has already been, as they say, “priced into” the political markets. We already knew from many other sources that Trump’s White House staffers think their boss lacks the knowledge or curiosity to understand domestic or foreign policy; that much of his staff disrespects him; and that the president is given to tantrums within an already dysfunctional working environment. This is not to say that Woodward doesn’t introduce some great new examples of happenings in Trump’s White House, such as an aide stealing papers off his desk to prevent a decision or the secretary of defense agreeing to execute a presidential order then immediately telling a subordinate he has no intention of doing so. But little of it will alter preexisting and hardened views of the president.
The “dumb Southerner” quote may be an exception, however. One early indicator of its impact is that a group of Southern Republican senators has already pushed back on Trump, not for the “retarded” or “traitor” parts of Trump’s attack on Sessions, only the “dumb Southerner” phrase. (Trump, of course, denied saying what Woodward reports him saying about Sessions.) Nor did their rebuttal defend Sessions’s intellect per se, so much as umbrage at the implied general indictment of the entire region’s intellect.
These senators rightly sense something dangerous about Trump’s comment and one that they needed to disavow immediately. Trump, despite his gilded lifestyle, has been able to connect with Southerners’ feeling that they, like him, are shunned by elites, and that he is “one of us.” Trump’s quote calls that all into question and may make many Southerners feel as if they have been had. And Southerners don’t like that feeling, either, not one little bit.