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PITTSBURGH — Donald Trump famously said that he was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.
But plenty of voters in the Steel City, including some of Trump’s own, say the president doesn’t speak for them.
A focus group of Pittsburgh-area voters, conducted Tuesday night by pollster Peter Hart on behalf of Emory University, revealed bipartisan disappointment in the tenor of Trump's leadership during the first seven months of his presidency.
Asked to describe the president in a single word, participants called Trump “outrageous,” “dishonest,” “disappointing” “narcissistic,” “an abject disappointment,” “unique,” “not ready to be president,” “off the scale,” “crazy,” “unbelievable” and “contemptible.”
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Five of the group's 12 members voted for Trump, and each one of them expressed concerns about his failure to dislodge D.C. gridlock and communicate a positive message.
“What most disappoints me is he’s such an incredibly flawed individual who has articulated so many of the values that I hold dear,” said Trump voter Tony Sciullo, an insurance company president. “The messenger is overwhelming the message.”
“Don’t attack those that attack you," said Brian Rush, a Trump voter who said he chose “the lesser of two evils” in November. “You have a job to do. No matter what job you have, who you are, people are going to doubt you. Understand that and keep going forward.”
“He’s not even professional, let alone presidential,” added Trump voter Christina Lees, an administrative assistant and an independent who leans towards the GOP.
Hart, who conducted the focus group, said that the overwhelming message from these voters was that Trump’s presidency has been too focused on himself and not on the concerns of the Americans he was elected to represent.
“He’s supposed to be the voice of hope,” Hart said. “What everybody said, either directly or indirectly, was that his presidency’s about him and it’s not about us.”
Yearning for empathy from the president
In the wake of racial tensions in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the unfolding natural disaster in Texas, voters from both parties lamented that Trump has failed to use the power of the presidency to lift up the country in trying times.
“He is almost totally lacking in empathy,” said Sciullo. “That’s why he scores so poorly on all of these issues. 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."
"I look at a president to be presidential, someone who is calm, focused," said Rush. "I thought, 'This guy — he’s not a politician,' but in some aspects he’s turning into a politician. Just the way that he’s saying what he thinks his base wants to hear. He’s let me down."
“He has no social skills,” added Bart Morgan, an operations manager who voted for Jill Stein. “It’s almost like he was never taught the right way to act.”
Charles Howard, an African-American Clinton voter who is self-employed, was incredulous at Trump’s use of Twitter to attack his foes. “The fact that he uses Twitter as a weapon instead of using it as a means to enlighten people… He uses words like ‘these are my enemies.' They’re Americans! He’s dividing the country with Twitter, tweet after tweet after tweet.”
Mary Gallagher, an insurance broker who backed Clinton, wondered aloud if Trump does not understand that his words represent the voice of the whole nation. “He is not a single voice. He is the voice of America and he is the voice of millions. What are you thinking?”
While the Trump voters in the group represented an important segment of the electorate, they were not necessarily emblematic of the white working class voters credited with boosting Trump to victory in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania. Of the five Trump voters in the group, all but one had at least a college degree.
In November, white voters without a college degree in Pennsylvania supported Trump by a margin of two-to-one, according to exit polls, while white voters with a college degree split their support evenly between Clinton and Trump.
Still, in a state where Trump won by less than a percentage point, his backers’ complaints are a warning sign for the Republican president. While some emphasized that it’s still early in his presidency, almost all indicated that Trump will need to make major changes to win back their confidence.
“He hasn’t lost my vote, I wouldn’t change my vote,” said Rush. “But I hope he makes changes in himself to right the ship.”
“He’s going to have to really get cranking,” said David Turner, a heavy equipment operator. “This isn’t the 7th inning stretch but he really needs to get educated and go to town and start rolling the direction that I voted for him for.”
Little mention of Russia
Throughout the two-hour discussion, Trump’s demeanor and rhetoric loomed large, but almost no mention was made of the ongoing investigation into possible contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.
Asked to evaluate special counsel Robert Mueller, who is probing the matter, four members of the group said they weren’t familiar with him. Others called him “serious,” and “hopefully effective.”
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was described by some participants as a beacon of relative stability. Words like “strong” and “reliable” came to mind, although one Democratic voter quipped that Kelly’s White House job description amounts to a “babysitter.”
Each of the participants also worried about what they called an erosion of civility in America, urging dialogue and cooperation and calling for unity as a country in spite of their disappointment in Trump’s rhetoric.
“I hope and I pray that he will make a paradigm shift,” Sciullo said of the president he backed last fall. “It’s not likely. But [otherwise], it’s like hoping the pilot of the plane has a heart attack because you don’t like him.”
“He is our president,” he added. “Until — and if — he gets impeached.”