The United States is in the midst of its worst economic catastrophe in 90 years, and its deepest public-health crisis in more than 100, and the president is laser-focused on the co-host of a morning cable-news talk show whose audience, about 1.1 million daily viewers, equals less than one third of one percent of the population.
Indeed, to put the matter more precisely, the president is focused on investigating a 20-year-old death that Trump wishes to falsely pin on Morning Joe co-host Joe Scarborough. Trump has tweeted about the case four times since the beginning of Memorial Day weekend. It is, to say the least, a strange issue to focus on given the circumstances. Even if his claims were true, there are far more important issues before him.
This is not a shrewd messaging gambit. It does, however, follow a certain logic.
Obviously a wise and strategic president would not be doing this. The sane strategy for maximizing Trump’s reelection odds would be to manage the public-health response to the pandemic while taking advantage of a Democratic Congress willing to spend almost unlimited sums to pump stimulus into the economy.
But “sane” left the building a long time ago, and Trump is left in a world of second- and third-best strategies. In place of effective governance, he is counting on partisanship to polarize the race, keeping it close enough that he can eke out another win by demonizing his opponent. A crucial element of Trump’s polarization method is to suppress all internal dissent.
This is why Trump relentlessly claims (without any basis, of course) that his approval ratings among Republicans have risen to 95 percent or 96 percent. It is why he devotes so much energy to defining “Never Trumpers” as a hostile clique to be distrusted, and why he lobbed gratuitous insults at Mitt Romney rather than try to patch up his relationship with a man who solicited his endorsement in 2012. Scarborough is dangerous to Trump because he is a Republican, and his criticism undermines Trump’s message that all real Republicans support Trump. And while Trump could choose to ignore Scarborough, he believes in intimidating his critics into silence.
Trump is not a political genius, but he does grasp the power of audacious lies. His most devoted cultists believe everything he says, even the things that contradict other things he says. Perhaps more vital to his success is the political allies who go along with the lies even if they see through them.
On occasion Trump will make a claim so outrageous and offensive to conservatives that some of them will pipe up with a factual correction. After yet another smear of Scarborough, Brit Hume scolded the president for sharing a “discredited” charge:
National Review published a brief editorial noting that Scarborough did not, in fact, murder his former staffer. The editorial, headlined “Trump’s Grotesque Tweets,” falls into a familiar niche of criticism largely centered on the president’s style. He is lamentably undisciplined, rude, distractible, and undignified. “It’s unworthy of a partisan blogger, let alone the president of the United States,” lament National Review’s editors. It is a line of criticism that even many strong Trump supporters feel free to share: Trump is doing a good job, but he really ought to stop tweeting.
They might combine the critique of his performative shortcomings with the occasional fact-check. What they won’t do is draw the obvious conclusion that Trump not only lies from time to time but is a liar. The severity and frequency of Trump’s lies so far surpass other major national figures that no comparison can be drawn. No intelligent person could grant any presumption of truth to any claim Trump makes.
But while some conservatives may wish to dissent from a handful of discrete claims that Trump makes — Joe Scarborough’s alleged murderousness is one, Jeff Sessions’s service as attorney general is another — they do not wish to discredit him writ large. They need Trump to remain a credible platform from which to launch attacks against Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and other enemies.
If conservative elites conceded that Trump is not merely a boor who occasionally goes too far, but a habitual and remorseless liar, they would gravely damage his ability to discipline fellow Republicans by smearing them. To do so would gravely undercut their own party and an administration that continues to serve the conservative movement faithfully. So, they will not.
It is because Trump retains his presumption of credibility with Republicans that he can threaten to target them with his abuse and lies if they cross him. He called Lindsey Graham “a disgrace,” a “nut job,” “one of the dumbest human beings I’ve ever seen,” and read his cell-phone number on television to invite harassment from his fans. He bullied Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. Notably, his harassment of the latter two also took the form of spurious murder charges. Trump claimed Cruz’s father may have plotted to kill President Kennedy, and he called Carson “pathological.” (“He hit his mother over the head with a hammer, he hit a friend in the face with a lock, he tried to kill somebody with a knife … If you’re pathological, there’s no cure for that, folks. If you’re a child molester, a sick puppy, there’s no cure for that.”)
Now those targets count as Trump’s most faithful servants. As he gazes down at the likes of Graham, Cruz, Rubio, and Carson nestled comfortably at his feet, why wouldn’t Trump conclude that his bullying works?