the national circus

Frank Rich: The Trump Campaign’s Gross Political Malpractice

Saturday didn’t go quite as planned. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump’s campaign after Tulsa, the nationwide coronavirus surge, and Bill Barr’s attempt at a Friday Night Massacre.

President Trump’s Tulsa rally failed to be the campaign launchpad that he and his staff had envisioned. Where does his campaign go from here?

Perhaps the most important thing we learned from Trump’s Tulsa fiasco is that there is no Trump campaign. No real political campaign, even for City Council, would let the candidate and his minions repeatedly promise a million attendees at a rally that missed that mark by some 993,800. No real campaign would demolish its unused outdoor stage for that rally’s “overflow” in broad daylight, on camera, as cable news scrounged for images while waiting for the rally to start, rather than wait until after dark to whisk away the humiliating ruins of defeat. No real campaign would let its candidate be seen returning to the White House that night, all alone, his tie undone, his MAGA cap crushed in his hand, a dinner-theater Willy Loman in visible disarray on a walk of shame.

Wasn’t bravura showmanship, especially when appearing on television, supposed to be Trump’s one unassailable gift as a politician? Coming after the ramp embarrassment at West Point — further evidence of the failure of a political advance team to manage the most basic performative elements of election-year stagecraft — Tulsa suggests the wheels are coming off the Trump show.

Someone will get fired, presumably, but as we all know, it doesn’t matter. Now, as in 2016, Trump sees himself as the bearer of the golden gut who always knows best and will override the “experts” who think they know better. But physically and mentally, he’s not the guy he was four years ago, he’s not facing the same opponent he did four years ago, and only the truest of believers can ignore what’s happened in America on his watch.

Those true believers will never betray him. “Give me liberty or give me corona,” one middle-age MAGA fan in Tulsa told the Times. These people are literally willing to die for their dear leader. They were happy to camp out much of a week in punishing heat and torrential rain, to expose themselves to a deadly disease, to be sure to get good seats Saturday night. But this loyal hard core represents roughly a third of the country — the same percentage of seats they filled in the 19,000-seat BOK Center.

What now? Trump can’t risk his favored outdoor rallies in large arenas lest this debacle repeat itself. He has only one message: a brew of virulent white supremacism and nativism that veers between attacking American racial and ethnic minorities at home and blaming every administration failure on China and its “kung flu.” It’s not working. Most Americans abhorred the spectacle of Trump’s troops firing tear gas at peaceful demonstrators to make way for his biblical photo op. The antifa villains that Trump and Bill Barr have identified as the ringleaders of a national assault on “law and order” have evaporated much like those Latin American caravans that once were supposedly preparing to assault America’s southern border. Meanwhile, evidence of how much Trump and his party are in hock to China seems to be surfacing continuously. In this week’s installment, The Wall Street Journal reported that wealthy Chinese people with ties to the Chinese national-security apparatus and military and looking to buy influence in the White House have been pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into Trump’s reelection. You can bet that the Lincoln Project will knit the photographic evidence into spots far more persuasive than Trump’s evidence-free eruptions about #BeijingBiden.

Biden is also proving a much more formidable candidate against the 2020 iteration of Trump than most (including me) had figured. The Tulsa audience wasn’t whipped into a frenzy by their hero’s Biden insults; it’s further evidence of how essential misogyny was to the bloodthirsty cries of “Lock her up!” four years ago. “Lock him up” just doesn’t have the same ring. And Biden’s calibrated rollout to public settings has flustered Trump too. The president looks impotent when he swings and misses at “invisible” enemies.

No one can rely on polls showing a Biden romp more than four months before Election Day. Anything can happen. But one thing that won’t happen: Trump won’t change. He won’t stop showboating his racism. He won’t stop believing that “opening up” the economy will lead to a skyrocketing economic recovery in the midst of a skyrocketing pandemic. Even the little lessons are never learned. Only a couple of weeks after he turned John Bolton’s memoir into a No. 1 best-seller, he is doing the same for his niece Mary Trump’s memoir, Too Much and Never Enough, No. 4 on the Amazon list a month ahead of its publication thanks to the latest doomed Trump legal action to suppress it.

New coronavirus surges in states that have reopened have left some experts in other countries thinking that “the U.S. has given up” attempts to rein in the pandemic. Are they right?

Speaking of Trump as never changing: As the American death count passes 120,000, he is more persuaded than ever that COVID-19 will just go away miraculously because he wills it to happen. Having surrendered to the “invisible” enemy of the coronavirus, he is going after visible enemies — testing, masks, and anything else that might help thwart it. Now that the spread is spiking exponentially in red states, some of those mini-Trump governors who did the bare minimum to protect their constituents at the outset — Ron DeSantis in Florida, Greg Abbott in Texas, Doug Ducey in Arizona, Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas — are starting to panic and about-face. But not Trump. He may or may not have slowed down testing in the past, but he certainly is now: The federal support of testing is going to be scaled back even further at the end of the month, including in states like Texas. My guess is that Trump would, however, be glad to have taxpayers foot the bill to ramp up production of that air-purification system (it “kills 99.9 percent of COVID within 10 minutes”) hawked by the Phoenix megachurch where he appeared yesterday. It shows even more promise than hydroxychloroquine.

After Bill Barr’s botched attempt at a Saturday Night Massacre in the Manhattan federal prosecutors’ office, Jerrold Nadler has said he is preparing to subpoena Barr to testify in Congress and threatened to limit Barr’s budget if he does not comply. Will increased pressure change Barr’s behavior?

“Botched” doesn’t begin to describe Barr’s sub-Machiavellian move at the SDNY. It takes a certain amount of idiocy to stage a Saturday Night Massacre on Friday night. Richard Nixon knew that by staging a coup on Saturday night, you catch the Sunday television talk shows and newspapers off-guard, whereas, if you do it Friday night, you tee up the media for a full weekend of frenzy.

Not for the first time — or the thousandth, perhaps — America has been rescued from complete authoritarian rule by the sheer incompetence of Trump and his lieutenants, who are rarely better at executing their extralegal maneuvers than they are at their rare forays into legal governance. But Nadler’s threats will go nowhere. Barr will continue to serve his master in any way he can, assuring get-out-of-jail-free cards for the likes of Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, and Rudy Giuliani while continuing to hollow out civil-rights enforcement at Justice even as law-enforcement criminality is given a pass. America has an attorney general who seems far more at home in a bunker with a lawless leader than in any Washington edifice that stands for our Constitution.

Frank Rich: The Trump Campaign’s Gross Political Malpractice