Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency as an autocratic populist who would single-handedly force America’s corrupt, sclerotic government to meet its people’s needs. “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves,” the Republican nominee declared at the party’s convention in 2016. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
But Trump is no authoritarian strongman; he just plays one on TV.
In real life, the president is not an exceptionally power-hungry or willful leader but a historically unambitious and emotionally fragile one. America is living under the thumb of an authoritarian weak man.
At the onset of the coronavirus crisis, some feared that Trump would exploit the pandemic to further erode constitutional guardrails and aggrandize his personal power. After all, national emergencies tend to be fertile climates for authoritarian overreach. And a crisis of infectious disease seemed especially conducive to right-wing nationalist calls for sealing borders and surveilling suspect populations.
In reality, Trump has not spent the COVID-19 crisis aggrandizing his power but shrinking from it. Which makes sense. The mogul has pursued no small number of power grabs during his first term in office. But none of these have required Trump to invest significant time or mental energy into solving complex problems. And the bulk of his abuses of power have been either reactive measures aimed at insulating himself from legal accountability, or relatively trivial contortions of executive authority, such as declaring Canadian steel a national security threat so as to impose tariffs without congressional approval. Trump’s most proactive and extreme abuses of office, such as his attempt to coerce the Ukrainian government into damaging his domestic opposition, were aimed at maintaining his grip on power rather than exercising that power to effect some transformative act of governance. Even on the handful of policy subjects that do command Trump’s enthusiasm — such as trade and immigration — the president has made clear that he is less concerned with achieving specific substantive outcomes than projecting a favorable image.
In other words: One of the many reasons why Donald Trump has not fashioned himself into a dictator is that he has little interest in governing. By most accounts, the mogul “joined the political arena” as a ploy for publicity. His candidacy’s animating ambition was not to advance an ideological vision of the good society but to mitigate a B-list celebrity’s sense of narcissistic injury. The cable coverage was the point. Most politicians court media coverage to secure political power; Trump sought political power to secure media coverage.
For these reasons, it is shocking, but not surprising, that in the midst of a world-historic economic and epidemiological crisis, the White House is working around the clock — to protect the president’s wounded ego.
A surge in COVID-19 cases across the Sun Belt is testing the nation’s hospital capacity and deepening its economic crisis. America is conducting roughly 4.5 million fewer coronavirus tests a day than experts recommend, because the federal government has failed to secure an adequate supply. Many of those who do secure tests must wait a week to learn their results — a delay that renders the tests all but useless for containing the virus’s spread. With America’s public schools scheduled to reopen late next month, the administration has not only failed to provide a comprehensive plan for a safe reopening but blocked the disbursement of fiscal aid to cash-starved states and cities, thereby leaving municipalities ill-equipped to fully fund their school systems under normal conditions, let alone ones in which social-distancing protocols require commandeering new classroom space. The executive branch’s dereliction of duty has been so thorough and egregious, the Republican governor of Maryland felt compelled to denounce it in a Washington Post op-ed Thursday morning. The American public — or, rather, the minority of voters who delivered Trump his Electoral College triumph — has been willing to forgive the president for many things. But a critical mass of lukewarm Trump supporters appear to draw the line at “negligent mass homicide.”
In response to this political and public-health disaster, administration officials are doing everything in their power to show Donald Trump videos of boats that make him feel better about himself. As the Daily Beast reports:
As Trump’s re-election campaign has struggled to tear down former Vice President Joe Biden with less than four months until Election Day, the president’s staff have devoted considerable resources to finding novel ways to make him feel better about the crumbling world around him.
… [T]he president’s lieutenants have sought to lift his spirits in numerous other ways during this dark and deadly chapter for the country. One of them is to simply highlight for the president — as much as they possibly can — the images and footage of Trump-loving citizens the president has affectionately dubbed his “beautiful ‘boaters’” during the pandemic.
According to two people who’ve been in the room when Trump has fixated on the issue, the president has repeatedly stressed that “boaters” — MAGA fans who join in on pro-Trump flotillas, with ships adorned with Trump and Mike Pence banners and gear — are a shining exemplar of the enthusiasm gap he enjoys over Biden. He has delighted in advisers showing him boater photos and videos that have bubbled up on social media. And during strategy sessions in the past two months, he’s told officials to keep bringing him more and to push out the content on their own accounts, as well.
“I think we have really good poll numbers,” Trump declared at a press conference Tuesday when asked about his position in the election. “They’re not suppression polls; they’re real polls. You look at the Intracoastal in Florida. You look at the lakes. You see thousands of boats with Trump signs.”
Assuring the president that there is no sounder methodology for measuring public opinion than tallying the ratio of Trump to Biden signs affixed to boats in Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway is among the administration’s most rational means of tending to the president’s hurt feelings. It has also taken to smearing the head of Trump’s own coronavirus task force. How, precisely, the president is supposed to benefit from having his trade adviser denigrate the expertise of Anthony Fauci in USA Today is unclear. Polls suggest that Fauci is among the administration’s most trusted officials. It would therefore, ostensibly, benefit Trump to associate himself with the doctor rather than distance the White House from him. Regardless, it’s hard to understand how a president who campaigned on a promise to hire “the best people” benefits from advertising the shoddiness of his own personnel. Alas, Fauci’s insistence on describing the present calamity with a modicum of accuracy threatens the president’s self-esteem. Thus, Trump’s sycophants have scrambled to provide the president with evidence of Fauci’s failings, with the conservative pseudo-economist Stephen Moore penning a memo titled “Dr. Wrong,” detailing “how many times Dr. Fauci’s been wrong during not just corona, but during his entire career.”
The administration’s most counterproductive strategy for lifting Trump’s mood, however, has been flying him out to coronavirus hot spots to hold poorly attended rallies (a.k.a. potential super-spreader events). The White House has occasionally found a way to improve the president’s self-esteem and his handling of the pandemic simultaneously, as when staffers loudly congratulated the president for wearing a face mask in public, like he was a toddler wearing big-boy undergarments for the first time. (Asked by the Daily Beast whether this effusive praise was aimed at persuading the president to do the absolute minimum that responsible leadership in this moment demands, an administration official replied, “Of course.”)
All things considered, it’s probably preferable to be ruled by an imperious snowflake than an authoritarian strongman, if only because the former is easier to dislodge. But from now until Trump leaves the White House, Americans will suffer from the fact that its president is among the weakest men on planet Earth.
This appraisal does not hinge on some subversive definition of strength. The right’s own masculinist ideal associates toughness with selflessness in defense of one’s country, and an unflinching assumption of personal responsibility. It venerates the soldier who subordinates his own survival to the mission he’s been assigned and the entrepreneur who pulled himself up by his bootstraps instead of whining about the unfairness of his humble origins. Trump is the antithesis of this ideal, a man too weak to subordinate his emotional needs to his public responsibilities in a time of acute crisis — and too allergic to the concept of personal responsibility to acknowledge that managing the response to a nationwide public-health emergency is not a matter for the states. Other major world leaders have botched their attempts to contain the virus. But none have mustered the fecklessness necessary for simply closing their eyes to COVID-19. Trump, alone, could ignore it.