So, what’s a fellow to do these days? Donald Trump was riding high a few months ago. He had what he liked to call a booming economy — that is, “booming” for billionaires, with a stock market in the stratosphere, corporate profits at obscene levels and mega-giants getting rebates instead of paying taxes; a huge campaign war chest and a divided Democratic Party playing Ten Little Indians in the endless farce the DNC called “debates.” Being president was pretty easy when you didn’t have one of those generals trying to get you to read briefing books, and the only decisions you had to make were which environmental regulation to gut or world organization to pull out of next. Life could be great.
Then, the luck ran out.
It’s a truism that the modern presidency is tested by crisis. The last president to get by without one was Calvin Coolidge. He spent six years in office with nothing more serious to deal with than Lindbergh’s flight over the Atlantic, Babe Ruth’s sixty home runs and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Herbert Hoover then found himself facing the Great Depression; Franklin D. Roosevelt had to deal with it, and a world war after that; Harry Truman had the Cold War and so on. Donald Trump had not a worry in the world, and a Teflon suit off which endless scandal bounced off without a dent.
Trump didn’t want to hear about the coronavirus, and he still doesn’t. At first, he tried to will it away — if grown men quailed at his command, how could a thing not even technically alive defy him? — and, when that didn’t work, he resorted to magical thinking: it would simply disappear. At this point, he still has no idea of how to deal with it, and his only response is denial. For one of the world’s most notorious germophobes, this is a strenuous exercise in nonthinking indeed.
The one thing Trump does take seriously is polls, at least during reelection season. When he doesn’t like one, he looks to another. None of them, though, are looking up.
To be sure, the President has some options. In some reptilian corner of his mind, he understands that the fewer people who come out to vote in November, the better for him. He has said as much in effect in his now oft-quoted remark that if voting were not suppressed, no Republican would win an election. In effect: Trump did not say that he would not win a race personally, and he has never identified himself as a Republican except on the rarest and most ceremonial of occasions. He did not run as one in 2016; on the contrary, his main policy proposals — tax hikes for the rich, controls on drug prices, guaranteed insurance coverage for preexisting medical conditions and the like — were populist ploys at odds with standard Republican Party positions.
When he won, Trump turned the Party into a personal satrapy, and what had hitherto been its constituents into a “base,” loyal to him alone. Classically, this is what dictators do. Thus, what Trump means, when he says that no Republican can win an election that isn’t tilted or rigged, is that no Republican can win one without him. When a Republican wins a race, it is his doing; when he doesn’t, it’s the loser’s fault. Strictly speaking, there is no Republican Party without Trump. There is only a Leader, his followers and his enemies: a Mitt Romney, a John McCain.
The Leader does not win or lose elections; he appropriates them. There is only one legitimate party: his own. Any opposition is simply treasonous. Trump has repeatedly flung such a charge at Democrats, but it should be remembered that Republicans were doing the same when they accused their Democratic opponents of “20 years of treason” in 1952 while he was still in knee-pants. You might say, in fairness, that Trump was not simply a demagogue looking for followers, but the Republicans wanting a greedy man for their boss.
Trump’s problem, however, is that he has not yet simply abolished elections as his erstwhile friend Xi Jinping has in China. He might attempt it, considering his fondness for declaring national emergencies; he is no doubt thinking of it, as his son-in-law Jared Kushner indicated when he said he was not in a position to guarantee that an election would be held on Nov. 3. As of now, however, the Democrats are still a legal party, and their presumptive candidate, Joe Biden, had, at last, a 14-point electoral lead over Trump.
Barring a military coup, then (for which the routing of the Lafayette Park protesters in Washington, D.C. on June 1 by the military looked like an intended rehearsal), Trump must gird himself for the prospect that an election will indeed take place. But the lesson of Lafayette Park was that the generals were not at the moment to be had. So how does Trump, in the midst of a pandemic, economic collapse and seething racial unrest, figure out a way to win?
What he’s doing is what many others have done in his place: going with what brought him to the dance. Trump started out as a salesman; he branched out into being a showman; he sees politics as a melding of the two, with himself as the product. Getting people to buy the product and stick with the brand is his sole objective, and to do that he has cultivated the unthinking adherence he calls loyalty. Loyalty, in his Barnumesque view, is a one-way street, in which what is offered is the illusion of value and what is demanded is the hard coin of support. What bonds it is spectacle, the phenomenon of the rally in which Trump offers himself as the object of his followers’ devotion.
We’ve seen the act before: it’s called demagoguery. Huey Long was a demagogue; so was George Wallace. But no American demagogue was ever president of the United States, and none has ever been more nakedly cynical. Long did build Louisiana; Wallace lived to repent his racism. Donald Trump has never had anything but contempt for his followers, even as he feeds off their adoration.
As Trump’s general public approval has sunk to regions from which few politicians have ever returned, he has been repeatedly urged to reach beyond his base and try, at long last, to unify the country. Such sage advice completely misunderstands the man. He cannot reach out to anything beyond himself, because nothing exists for this textbook narcissist beyond the ego whose emptiness he must daily fill. For that, he is willing to sacrifice anything and anyone, himself not excluded. The rally he staged in Tulsa the past weekend, poorly attended as it was, still mortally endangered those who attend it and spread the COVID-19 virus to others outside it. Despite the personal precautions he himself took and his apparent belief in his own magic immunity, he risked making himself his own victim.
Many people now are marching in the streets for racial and economic justice, at significant risk of their own. But Donald Trump invites his followers to join a biohazard suicide cult in which he is the master of ceremonies.