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President Trump’s political career has consisted of a series of self-generated crises that he has improbably survived, from insinuating that John McCain was a coward for having been captured during the war that Trump himself dodged to the three-year-long high-crime (and misdemeanor) spree. Throughout these disasters, Trump has maintained a floor of support that is apparently immutable and just high enough to give him a plausible chance of reelection. Yet the pair of crises now enveloping the administration appear to be of a completely different political magnitude than anything that has faced Trump to date. It may now really, finally, truly be over for him.
The obvious factor distinguishing the coronavirus and the probable recession from the Access Hollywood tape, firing James Comey, and all the rest is that they have a tangible impact on the lives of Americans. (Or, to put it more precisely, Americans who have voting representation, unlike Puerto Ricans.) Trump’s continuous din of scandals and gaffes is unintelligible to many Americans who either do not follow the news closely, or follow Trump-controlled news organs, and who have instead judged his presidency by the direct experience of peace and prosperity. Trump has done one very big thing very well: He rebranded the economic expansion he inherited as his own creation, like the licensing deals he makes to splash the Trump name over hotels and resorts other people built. Trump’s handling of the coronavirus turns his greatest strength into perhaps his greatest liability.
A somewhat less obvious factor is that Trump’s own mismanagement has demonstrably contributed to these disasters. The entire crisis has grown out of Trump’s constitutional aversion to long-term planning. In his autobiography, Trump boasted that he does not even plan his days, but simply reacts to events as they happen. That process is now dominated by cable news, and especially the stock market, which is Trump’s narrow and highly distorted prism for understanding the entire economy. He dissolved the skilled team of pandemic experts he inherited from Obama on the overt calculation that it wasn’t a priority. “Who would have thought … we’d be having this subject?” he mused.
At some point Trump may retreat to the defense that the coronavirus is an external disaster for which he can’t be blamed. But a series of leaks have documented his direct responsibility.
In January, the Washington Post reports, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar “was having trouble focusing Trump’s full attention on his coronavirus briefing … Why did you push me to insert myself into a controversial political issue? Trump demanded.” Another Post story notes that, while health officials warned not to say the virus had been “contained,” people like Lawrence Kudlow insisted on saying this anyway.
Politico’s reporting implicates Trump’s aides, who apparently shared the broad right-wing belief that the virus was overblown, in trying to keep the issue off the president’s agenda. “It always ladders to the top,” a person involved in the administration’s response says, “Trump’s created an atmosphere where the judgment of his staff is that he shouldn’t need to know these things.”
“Trump is simply not on the same wavelength as the rest of his team, but they said there isn’t much they can do to change his public tone,” reports NBC. “Trump has been advised by some close to him to let public health officials, rather than the politicians, take a more forward-facing role, according to a person familiar with the conversation. But a person close to the White House said Trump thinks it helps him politically to keep doing what he has been doing.”
White House health experts wanted to advise old and vulnerable people to avoid commercial flights, but were overruled by Trump, who feared the impact on the economy. Trump even resisted the mild and extremely obvious advice that old people should avoid booking cruises, for fear of the impact to the cruise industry, before eventually relenting. Even sycophantic sources like the Federalist are begging Trump to keep his mouth shut.
But Trump is incapable of such patience. He keeps repeating that the coronavirus will blow over without much hassle. He believes the conspiracy theories that it’s a hoax designed to bring him down, and he also believes any messaging problem he has can be solved by more messaging from Trump.
Trump seemed totally oblivious to the danger of hardening his public image as the national-level equivalent of the mayor in Jaws, blithely ignoring reports of a gigantic shark because he didn’t want to hurt the tourism season.
Enough of the debacle has played out in public to supply Democrats with a campaign’s worth of damning video clips. Trump appeared in public insisting that the virus was “contained,” and that the number of cases “within a couple of days, is going to be down to close to zero.” Trump and his surrogates kept advising people to buy stocks after every dip. The strategy made no sense except as a desperation gambit to prop up the stock market on an hour-to-hour basis with dumb money from Trump’s marks.
For all the apparent durability of Trump’s personality cult, it is worth recalling that George W. Bush was once a figure of nearly equal stature on the right. He was the swaggering, flight-suit-wearing alpha male who had conquered Afghanistan and Iraq. The conservative media slathered over him in almost erotic terms. When things went south for Bush, after his failed attempt to privatize Social Security was followed by Hurricane Katrina and the unraveling of the Iraq occupation, they went south very fast.
It is possible that the public-health and economic catastrophes that loom so large at the moment will be gone by autumn. It is even possible that they will remain and Trump will somehow survive anyway. (After all, the mayor in Jaws had somehow retained his position in Jaws 2. And he was still minimizing shark risks!)
But it seems more likely that Trump has finally made his unfitness for office so blatant that even his own supporters will notice. The American economy, its health infrastructure, and perhaps more are plunging into foreseeable crisis. And every step Trump has taken along the way seems almost calculated to expose him to maximal blame. Trump is now quite likely to lose his reelection, and we will look back at the last few weeks as the time when he sealed his own fate.