The heated discussion in the Oval Office between President Trump, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer offered a window into the dilemma with which Trump will grapple every day for the next two years as his reelection campaign proceeds. It gets to the heart of who he is as a person and a politician, of how he sees himself and how he sees the world, two contradictory impulses he will struggle to resolve.
When it comes to anything reflecting on himself — his “very good brain,” his buildings, his performance as president, his ties and steaks and university, Trump always insists that they are so fantastic as to redefine all prior conceptions of fantasticness. But when he looks outward — and this is where Trump the politician comes in — he sees nothing but ugliness, threat and despair.
Which worked quite well when he was running for president as a challenger. Again and again he told Americans that they were living in a nightmare, beset by crime and economic stagnation and dangerous foreigners, but if they elected him, it would all be over. “I have a message for all of you,” he said in his convention speech. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.” He made similar claims on economics, health care, political reform and many other topics: You’re living in hell right now, but all will be made right if you elect me.
Of course it was ludicrous, but it had an undeniable appeal, at least to a large enough minority of voters to assemble an electoral college victory. But an incumbent has to make a very different kind of case.
Most incumbent presidents make essentially the same argument when they run for reelection, adapted only slightly depending on the country’s circumstances at the time. It goes like this: “We’ve made tremendous progress, but there’s more work to do. Let’s not go backward.” While it’s possible for an incumbent to run on fear, it’s hard for them to run on anger, because the essence of their case is that things are going well. And anger is one of the places to which Trump is always drawn. When he gazes out at the world, his instinct is to say, “This is a horror and we should be enraged” even as he’s saying “I am tremendous.”
We saw that vividly yesterday as he sparred with Pelosi and Schumer over the subject of the border wall. Trump argued that the wall is real and it’s spectacular, already solving all of our problems, and then just minutes later argued that we have to build a wall because right now the border is a wellspring of violence and disease pouring into the country and contaminating everything. Here’s some of the first part:
Tremendous amounts of wall have already been built, and a lot of — a lot of wall. When you include the renovation of existing fences and walls, we've renovated a tremendous amount and we've done a lot of work. In San Diego, we're building new walls right now. And we've — right next to San Diego, we've completed a major section of wall and it's really worked well.[...]
But the wall will get built. A lot of the wall is built. It's been very effective. I asked for a couple of notes on that. If you look at San Diego, illegal traffic dropped 92 percent once the wall was up. El Paso, illegal traffic dropped 72 percent, then ultimately 95 percent, once the wall was up. In Tucson, Arizona, illegal traffic dropped 92 percent. Yuma, it dropped illegal traffic 95 to 96 percent. [...]
So we’ve done a lot of work on the wall; a lot of wall is built. A lot of people don’t know that. A lot of wall is renovated. We have walls that were in very bad condition that are now in A1 tip-top shape. And, frankly, some wall has been reinforced by our military. Our military has done a fantastic job.
Problem solved! And they accomplished this extraordinary wall-building with what is essentially the same level of funding for border security Democrats are offering now (though you’ll be surprised to hear that the numbers Trump cites are bogus). But just a few minutes later, he said this:
Look, we have to have the wall. This isn’t a question; this is a national emergency. Drugs are pouring into our country. People with tremendous medical difficulty and medical problems are pouring in, and in many — in many cases, it’s contagious. They’re pouring into our country. We have to have border security. We have to have a wall as part of border security.
So which is it? Has the wall already been built and solved the problem, or is the problem so great that we need to build a wall we don’t have?
The truth is that the wall has always been so much more than a physical structure. It’s a vessel into which Trump asked his supporters to pour all their hopes, their fears, their resentments, their anger and their disappointments. It would be the instrument of their spiritual restoration, a way to not just keep out immigrants but to bring back the dignity Trump voters felt they had lost. Not only would we build it, high and wide and strong, but we would use it to make Mexico kneel down before us in subjugation. “Who’s gonna pay for it?” Trump would ask his fervid crowds, and they’d cry “Mexico!” in joyful response, envisioning the day that we force our southern neighbors to open up their wallets to pay for their own humiliation while we stand tall once again.
But as he runs for reelection, he won't be able to convince them that the wall is built and Mexico has paid for it, especially if he's also telling them they still need to be afraid of the problem the wall is supposed to solve.
This contradiction will emerge for Trump on issue after issue. As much as he will describe his presidency as the most successful in history, he will always be drawn back to promoting fear and anger, as he did without success in the midterm elections. That's not only because it's where he seems to feel most comfortable, but because it's what he believes his base wants, and he sees feeding that base as his only path to victory.
But every time he tells voters that they've never had it so good, he undermines his argument that they should be angry and afraid. And every time he tells them to be angry and afraid, he undermines his case that they've never had it so good.
Perhaps when the Democrats have a nominee Trump will simply train all his venom on that person, telling voters that the Democrat is where their ill feelings and hatreds should be directed. That might work. But it’s hard to see him resolving the contradiction that already has him devolving into incoherence.