“And he’s going to get reelected.”
Not a day goes by without several friends — Republicans as well as Democrats — saying that to me. It’s the blunt coda to a bloated recitation of Donald Trump’s failures during this pandemic. It’s a whimper of surrender following a scream of disbelief.
Tens of thousands of Americans die; what does the president do? Spreads bad information. Seeds false hope. Reinvents history, reimagines science, prattles on about his supposed heroism, bellyaches about his self-proclaimed martyrdom and savages anyone who questions his infallibility. In lieu of leadership, grandstanding. In place of empathy, a snit. And he’s going to get reelected.
With that refrain we perform a spiritual prophylaxis. We prepare for despair.
But somewhere along the way, we started to confuse a coping mechanism with reasoned analysis. We began to treat a verbal tic as inevitable truth.
It isn’t. While Trump may indeed be careening toward four more years, it’s at least as possible that he’s self-destructing before our eyes.
Maybe a toasty beam of sunlight is all that we need to wipe out the coronavirus? What if we just injected disinfectant into our veins? He floated both of those fantasies Thursday, when he might as well have stepped up to the lectern in a tin foil hat. They’re the ramblings of a dejected, disoriented and increasingly desperate man.
As Katie Rogers and Annie Karni reported in The New York Times, the president feels isolated and embattled and is panicked that he’ll lose to Joe Biden in November. That state of mind, they wrote, prompted his executive order to halt the issuing of green cards, which is precisely the kind of base-coddling measure that he resorts to “when things feel out of control.”
He can read the polls as well as the rest of us can, and they show that while he stands there nightly in the White House briefing room and blows kisses at himself, Americans aren’t blowing kisses back.
A month ago there was much ado about a slight uptick in Trump’s job-approval numbers. But the real story was the slightness: Past presidents had experienced greater bumps during crises, when Americans tend to rally around their leader. For Trump there was no such rallying — just a grudging, incremental benefit of the doubt.
A fleeting one, too. His uptick quickly took a downturn, reuniting him with his anemic norm. According to the polling average at FiveThirtyEight as of late Friday afternoon, 52.5% of Americans disapprove of his job performance. Only 43.4% approve.
True, his favorability ratings weren’t any better in 2016 — in fact, they were worse — and he got to the White House regardless. But the dissonance of that victory could be explained partly by what he represented: a protest against the status quo. Now he is the status quo, and voters have had a chance to sample the disruption that he pledged. It tastes a lot like incompetence.
Other numbers tell an even scarier story for Trump. In all three of the battleground states that enabled his Electoral College victory 3 1/2 years ago, he’s currently behind Biden — by 6.7 percentage points in Pennsylvania, 5.5 in Michigan and 2.7 in Wisconsin, according to the averaging of recent polls by RealClearPolitics. That website also puts him behind by 3.2 points in Florida, a state he won in 2016 and must win again.
Wisconsin alone should terrify Trump. In 2018, the Republican governor was ousted by a Democrat. So were the Republican lieutenant governor and attorney general. Then, this month, Wisconsin voters replaced a conservative incumbent on the state’s Supreme Court with a liberal challenger, her victory not just surprising but resounding. There’s no way to spin that in Trump’s favor.
According to monthly polling by Gallup, the percentage of Americans who indicated satisfaction with the way things were going in the country plummeted to 30% in mid-April from 42% in mid-March. Only twice before in the past two decades has there been a one-month decline that precipitous.
Maybe this drop was less a referendum on Trump’s stewardship than a recognition of the coronavirus’s devastation. But maybe not: Surveys reveal that a significant majority of Americans believe that he acted too late to stem the virus’s spread. He’s also out of step with most Americans’ appraisal of what will and won’t be safe in the immediate future.
Amid Trump’s dizzyingly mixed messages, he has rooted for a return to some semblance of normalcy around May 1 and has chided a few governors for overzealous lockdowns. But in a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that was released Wednesday, only 12% of Americans said that the social-distancing and shelter-in-place directives where they live went too far, while more than double that number — 26% — said that the precautions weren’t stringent enough. Sixty-one percent said that they were on the mark.
In a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, 65% of Americans said it could take until June or later for gatherings of 10 people or more to be safe. And in a Yahoo News/YouGov poll, only 22% of Americans supported the protesters who have been demanding an end to their states’ restrictions, while 60% opposed them. Trump has egged those protesters on.
Is he following some gut instinct or just flailing? I vote for the latter. Lately he has contradicted himself at a whole new pace and to a whole new degree, and he has undercut his own party’s talking points.
As Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman reported in the Times, Republicans have developed a strategy to evade any responsibility for Trump’s response to the pandemic by blaming and demonizing China. “But there is a potential impediment to the GOP plan — the leader of the party himself,” Martin and Haberman wrote, noting that Trump has “muddied Republican efforts to fault China” by continuing to curry favor with President Xi Jinping. That tack certainly complicates Republicans’ efforts to paint Biden as a stooge of the Chinese. They can’t succeed with their new nickname for him, Beijing Biden, if Tiananmen Trump rings truer.
Also, Trump’s most optimistic pronouncements about imminent deliverance from the current misery represent a bigger gamble than the many others he has taken. If he’s wrong, there’s not going to be any hiding it. If he’s reckless, the toll is Americans’ very lives.
I know, I know: He’s Trump. He carries the secret weapon of his spectacular shamelessness, which means that he’ll resort to ploys and lies that even the most unscrupulous of his opponents wouldn’t attempt. He’ll destroy what he must so long as he gets to rule over the wreckage.
And the usual laws of nature don’t apply to him. He was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by the crotch. Didn’t matter. He got nearly 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. Still he won. If he wasn’t exactly found guilty of elaborate coordination with the Russians, he was certainly shown to be open to it. Onward he rolled, and he kept rolling past his gross abuse of power in dealing with Ukraine and his richly deserved impeachment for it.
He’s Houdini; he’s Scheherazade; he’s all the escape artists of history and fiction rolled into one and swirled with golden-orange topping. He’s lucky beyond all imagining. But here’s the thing about luck: It runs out.
There’s incessant talk of how fervent his base is, but the many Americans appalled by him have a commensurate zeal. For every Sean Hannity, there’s a Rachel Maddow. For every Kellyanne Conway, a George Conway. She and her ilk may be wily in their defense of the president. He and his tribe are even better in their evisceration of him.
And what of the diaspora of refugees from the Trump administration: people like Rick Bright, the government scientist who says he was just stripped of his leading role in the search for a coronavirus vaccine because he wouldn’t parrot Trump’s cockamamie talking points? I predict that as November nears, more and more exiles will speak out, sharing alarming accounts of life inside the president’s hall of mirrors. Trump in turn will mutter about the “deep state,” but the phrase won’t fly when he’s left with such a shallow pool of charlatans around him — and when he’s making such a repellent fool of himself.
Don’t tell me that his nightly briefings are just a new version of the old stadium rallies; their backdrop of profound suffering makes them exponentially harder to stomach. Americans who take any comfort from them were Trump-drunk long ago. The unbesotted see and hear the president for what he is: a tone-deaf showman who regards everything, even a mountain of corpses, as a stage.
Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.