the national circus

Trump’s Frantic Summer — Salesmanship or Mania?

Bubble boy. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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 disregard for coronavirus victims, Joe Biden’s step out of the spotlight, and the slow cancellation of the political conventions.

Donald Trump’s baffling responses to Jonathan Swan in his Axios interview this week are only part of a recent series of comments that show the president to be disregarding the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. Are these a failing attempt at salesmanship, or has the White House bubble allowed Trump to live in his own reality?

The baby who occupies the Oval Office is in a corner, flailing, panicking, and babbling. The bubble he inhabits long predates his presidency. As his niece Mary Trump has most recently verified, he has lived in his own reality his entire adult life. But the looming election poses the most serious existential threat yet to that fiercely maintained self-image as a strongman who can bully and lie his way out of any jam. So he will say anything and do anything to survive.

What we’re seeing now isn’t the old Trump salesmanship. It’s mania. His latest, short-lived attempt to follow a script written by the hacks in his bunker — those “coronavirus briefings” two weeks ago when he fleetingly acknowledged the pandemic’s severity — was probably the last. He doesn’t believe he can or should “pivot” or change his “tone” — as some in the press are still inclined to describe these brief interludes. He may even recognize that, for all his television experience, he still can’t competently read a teleprompter.

So, in the three-month countdown to Election Day, it’s come to this: Trying and failing to foist misleading White House–prepared bar charts about America’s coronavirus response on Jonathan Swan. Announcing that the nation’s children are “almost immune” to COVID on Fox & Friends. Telling another Fox News personality, Geraldo Rivera, that a vaccine will arrive by November 3. Hailing Arizona as a “model” for COVID response even as infections and deaths spiral. Promising to sign a nonexistent health-care bill to replace Obamacare. Declaring that Joe Biden is “against the Bible” and “against God.” Undermining his own party in its negotiations with congressional Democrats, then vowing to come to the rescue with executive orders of questionable legality and minimal practical value in aiding the millions of suffering Americans who are losing their jobs, their homes, and their lives.

Trump has been more forceful in trying to eradicate TikTok than a disease that has so far taken 160,000 lives on his watch. Since the facts are not on his side, and the lies he’s spewing to counter them get more maniacal by the hour, it’s unlikely (if not impossible) that he can win reelection by once again drawing an inside straight in the Electoral College. His most plausible paths to victory depend entirely on lawlessness and subterfuge: Sabotaging the postal system to delegitimize and undercount mail ballots; sending an army of 50,000 volunteer GOP poll watchers into certain districts to intimidate voters and suppress Election Day turnout, Jim Crow style; making certain that his administration, starting with Bill Barr, gives Vladimir Putin free rein to corrupt the electoral process; encouraging the scheme of Republican operatives to get Kanye West’s spoiler candidacy on state ballots; announcing that some sort of “vaccine,” perhaps hydroxychloroquine or Clorox, will be available at Walmart parking lots the week before the election; trying to use any delay in vote counting to destabilize the process and void the result.

It is what it is.

Most of the focus on the Biden campaign, and potential presidency, in recent weeks seems centered less on the candidate or his policies than on whom he might choose as a running mate. Biden himself doesn’t seem to mind — is he right to cede so much of the spotlight?

Biden’s elusiveness has made Trump and his campaign nuts. Their various strategies for smearing him have all failed to gain traction — from the vilifying of Hunter Biden to, most recently, a short-lived attempt to accuse him of ducking the debates when, in fact, it was Trump who was tardy in confirming his participation. Their newest scheme, to portray him as a puppet of the far left, will fare no better. Thanks to Biden’s long history in public life, most Americans have a strong impression of who he is, and, whether their take is favorable or negative, few, if any, beyond Trump’s base will buy him as a flaming radical in embryo aspiring to defund the police and banish Christianity. The best Trump can hope for is that Biden makes a mess of his vice-presidential pick or blows up on the debate stage.

There is little evidence to suggest that running mates help win elections; their main campaign role is to do no harm. There isn’t a single woman among those on the Biden list who couldn’t run the country better than Trump and who wouldn’t take office with more experience in government and public service than Trump. Assuming that there are no unvetted skeletons in the closet of whoever is chosen, the bottom half of the ticket is unlikely to affect the election results.

The passionate debate among Democrats on the choice, of course, is more about the future than the present. Whoever it is would be first in line to be the next Democratic president or presidential nominee should Biden not finish his first term or not vie for a second. But regardless of the choice, the ideological debates within the party will accelerate after the election, and Biden’s vice-president will surely face primary challengers should she run for president in 2024.

As for the debates, anything can happen, and the first debate, in particular, could potentially damage Biden. But Trump and his claque’s nonstop portrayal of Biden as sleepy, senile, doddering, and incoherent is something of a godsend for the Democrats. Biden needn’t be eloquent, just reasonably proficient, to satisfy viewers that he’s not as frail as advertised. Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine that one of his patented gaffes won’t be matched by Trump’s own — all it takes is another “Yo Semite” — and it’s also possible that Trump will be off his game without a packed auditorium to respond to his antics.

Due to health concerns, and amid criticism of their usefulness, the DNC convention has essentially been canceled, and the RNC convention has been falling apart for months. In a post-COVID world, should they come back?

No. The last convention when the presidential nomination was up for grabs was the Democrats’ in 1980, when Jimmy Carter and Teddy Kennedy were locked in battle. That means that essentially no one under the age of 55 even remembers what a consequential American political convention looks like. Ever since then, both parties have turned their conventions into prime-time infomercials, canned, and often tedious except to the party faithful. These zombie conventions — in reality, coronations — do offer full employment to journalists and lobbyists and to the host city’s retinue of hoteliers, bartenders, and prostitutes, but to no greater civic purpose.

Television journalists have done their best to manufacture drama as conventions have declined into inconsequentiality — whether hyping fights over the platform (soon to be forgotten in its entirety after convention week) or potential revolts on the floor. (In 2008, there was talk that “Hillary dead-enders” might somehow upend Barack Obama’s celebration, but no such fisticuffs ever materialized.) Even the entertainment segments have a scant afterlife. Hillary Clinton recruited Alicia Keys, Katy Perry, Paul Simon, and Meryl Streep to perform in 2016, but in the end they mattered no more than Trump’s celebrity posse of Scott Baio and the esteemed underwear model Antonio Sabato Jr.

The most fun this year will be tracking where Trump ends up delivering his acceptance speech. He’s so far fled from the GOP’s original convention site of Charlotte to Jacksonville, only to abandon that venue as well when chased out by the coronavirus. Now he talks about speaking instead from the White House, an idea opposed by Washington Republicans and Democrats alike on the grounds that it despoils 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with naked partisanship (and is possibly in violation of the Hatch Act). In the end, it doesn’t really matter what the backdrop is. Any Trump-branded golf course will do.

Frank Rich: Trump’s Frantic Summer — Salesmanship or Mania?