One of the enduring themes of the COVID-19 phase of the Donald Trump presidency is his self-pity over the terrible luck that gave him a pandemic to manage, as a piece in Bloomberg News last month noted:
Trump may be thinking he’s been dealt a bad hand with the pandemic, said Charlie Black, a veteran Republican strategist, who worked on the presidential campaigns of several Republicans, including George W. Bush and John McCain.
“That’s true, but that’s what happens when you’re president. So he has to play the hand the best he can,” he said.
But as is bluntly explained by two conservative editors at the National Review — the stolid right-wing periodical best described presently as anti-anti-Trump — the president’s poor luck is nothing when compared to the unlucky country he is supposed to lead. That’s because the pandemic has exposed and even exaggerated his very worst traits, even now, when he knows his presidency is on life support. Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru paint a devastating portrait of Trump as a man who literally cannot help himself:
[H]is situation is dire by any measure. Underlying conditions have turned against him, yet even when the economy was thriving, Trump was in a notably perilous position for a president presiding over peace and prosperity. The fault is not in his stars but in his tweets, erratic behavior, scattershot belligerence, and denials of reality, which had already made him radioactive before what he sometimes calls the “Wuhan flu” ever emerged.
Trump is thin-skinned, self-obsessed, small-minded, intellectually lazy, and ill-disciplined. These never seemed to be great qualities in a chief executive, but they have caught up with Trump over the last six months in particular. They have played into his poor handling of the coronavirus crisis and the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. When times became more serious, he remained as unserious as ever.
In particular, the pandemic — scary and unpredictable as it has been — might have served as an opportunity to rise to the occasion for a very different kind of president with a more balanced personality and a collaborative skill set. Instead, we have Captain Queeg at the helm of the ship of state:
Particularly in the circumstances of a novel pandemic, the president needs a process that brings him relevant information, structures his deliberation, allows him to adapt to new developments and correct mistakes, and guides the rest of the government in executing his decisions. And he must act in concert with Congress, governors, public-health experts, business leaders, and others, all of whom have their own roles to play. Nobody could perform this job perfectly.
What we have under Trump is very nearly the mirror image of this ideal. He relies on gut instinct and gets his information from what he happens to see on television or hears from friends. He is extremely disinclined to acknowledge mistakes, process bad news, or think beyond the news cycle. The structure his staff has built around him is designed more to manage his ego and shield him from bad news than to yield wise decisions. His understanding of the relationship between the president and other political actors is rudimentary, causing him to alternate between passivity and assertions of total control.
Why does he seem unable to benefit from the natural craving of a stricken population for presidential reassurance? Because it’s outside his repertoire, entirely:
Reassurance is not his brand. “Fighting” is, and Trump especially enjoys taking public shots at people who, by virtue of their position, cannot fight back. His most successful recent such campaign has targeted Dr. Anthony Fauci — if it counts as success for Trump to persuade many of his supporters to distrust one of his own advisers.
All the options available to an embattled president to save himself are simply beyond Trump’s reach:
Some well-wishers urge Trump to talk about a second-term agenda, but he cannot do it credibly when he has done so little to advance a first-term one. Immigration and health-care plans are always just about to be unveiled, but never are. “Infrastructure week” has been deferred so often as to become a running gag. What he is really offering is four more years of enraging liberals. That promise, at least, is something he can deliver on.
And that’s probably enough for some elements of his committed “base,” who love Trump mostly for his political incorrectness, and for his thrilling vindication of their own darkest impulses. But it’s not enough to secure reelection at a time when so many things are going wrong. And Trump’s own well-established strategy of winning reelection by refocusing attention on his opponent’s shortcomings is at odds with his own narcissism:
If his campaign has to warn about Biden and Ilhan Omar in its email pitches, it’s because talking about Biden alone isn’t scary enough. And the correct strategic judgment that Trump can win the race only if he makes it a choice between him and Biden rather than just a referendum on his own performance constantly runs into the candidate’s desire to make himself the sun and the moon.
And if this doesn’t necessarily mean Trump is doomed in November, it does mean he needs a miracle not of his own making:
[I]t is probably only events that can save him now: a waning of the pandemic, a clear economic rebound, a Biden stumble, some other exogenous event. None of this is unimaginable, but obviously none of it is certain — and none of it is in his control, or in the control of the many other Republicans whose political fates are tied to his.
The most frustrating thing, of course, is that if Trump’s luck did radically turn and he somehow got reelected through no merits of his own, he would take all the credit and enter a second term more puffed up and deluded than ever. Those conservatives who plan to hold their noses and vote for him should keep that in mind.