On a late summer night, some 230 days into the Trump presidency, a dozen Pennsylvania voters gathered around a conference table in Pittsburgh and were asked by respected Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart to just give "a word or a feeling about Donald Trump."
The answers from this group — five of whom had voted for Trump in November — ought to induce a serious anxiety attack in the White House's West Wing and in Republican Party headquarters across the nation: "outrageous," "dishonest," "disappointed," "narcissist," "abject disappointment," "unique," "not ready to be president," "off the scale," "crazy," "completely unfit to be president," "unbelievable" and "contemptible."
The Pittsburgh event was a focus group. It was sponsored by Emory University, which, because of its small size, is of course not a statistically reliable sample. It was, however, a directed, civil two-hour conversation, the goal of which was to hear voters in their own idiom expressing their feelings and why they feel the way they do.
Tony Sciullo, who runs his own insurance agency, is a Republican-leaning independent who backed Trump over Hillary Clinton and now finds the president "almost totally lacking in empathy. He cannot put himself in the other person's moccasins, whether it be racial or international or socio-economic. He's incredibly obtuse. And I voted for him."
Christina Lees, an administrative assistant and Republican-leaning independent, admittedly had low expectations when she voted for Trump — and he has totally failed to meet them: "Everybody knew he was a nut. But there comes a point in time where you need to become professional. He's not even professional, let alone presidential."
Criticism of Trump's personal behavior was echoed by Bart Morgan, an operations manager and Democratic-leaning independent who had voted not for Clinton but for Green Party nominee Jill Stein: "He has no social skills. It's almost like he was never taught the right way to act." Joyce Bevic, a corporate analyst and Clinton voter, expected more from the author of the best-selling "The Art of the Deal." He was "supposed to be such a good businessman, and he has no negotiation skills, no interpersonal skills," she said. "He just barks orders at people."
Charles Howard, a small-business owner and an African-American Democrat and Clinton voter, refused to accuse Trump of prejudice: "I do not think he's a racist. But I think that he lacks the moral ability to bring people together, because he's a divisive person by nature. I think he feeds off of that."
Republican Brian Rush, a sales representative and perhaps Trump's strongest supporter in the room, offered a highly qualified "endorsement" of what drives Trump: "Maybe there's personal motive for his businesses involved, but I truly think he wants this country to be the best it can be."
During the 44 years that Peter Hart has been expertly conducting these focus groups, this was truly the most remarkable he has ever seen. He's heard voters stridently criticize nine presidents. But after two hours without rancor and with mutual respect among the participants, for the only time in Hart's experience, an overwhelming consensus emerged: The president is, sadly, not presidential. No group had ever made such a damning judgment about a Reagan, a Bush, a Clinton or an Obama.
Donald Trump has managed to alienate voters and to isolate himself — not by any polarizing policy, which could be changed or even abandoned, but by his own self-obsessed personality and his own boorish behavior. In short, he is destroying himself politically just by being who he is. And he appears both unwilling and incapable of changing. That is what we learned from 12 honest citizens on a Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.