(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

President Trump is gripped by fear.

That is the message coming through from his public statements, his recent policy decisions, and reporting from inside the White House that paints a picture of a president increasingly rattled and irrational, striking out wildly as he searches for an argument that will frighten Americans enough to reelect him.

Let’s take a tour around the news today:

  • Trump told his fervid supporters at a rally Thursday that if he is not reelected, the economy will crash. “You have no choice but to vote for me because your 401(k)’s down the tubes. Everything is going to be down the tubes. So whether you love me or hate me, you’ve got to vote for me.”
  • Amid growing signs of a coming economic downturn, he is reportedly experiencing a combination of denial and rage. “Trump has a somewhat conspiratorial view, telling some confidants that he distrusts statistics he sees reported in the news media and that he suspects many economists and other forecasters are presenting biased data to thwart his reelection,” The Post reports. But he has also “told aides and allies that [Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell] would be a scapegoat if the economy goes south.”
  • Trump is increasingly using the powers of the presidency against his perceived enemies: “The president has grounded a military jet set for use by the Democratic House speaker, yanked a security clearance from a former CIA director critical of him, threatened to withhold disaster aid from states led by Democrats, pushed to reopen a criminal investigation targeting Hillary Clinton and publicly called for federal action to punish technology and media companies he views as biased against him.”
  • When he learned that Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) were planning a visit to Israel, Trump pressured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bar them from the country — yes, a U.S. president pushing a foreign government to refuse entry to U.S. public officials. Netanyahu initially relented, then after near-universal international condemnation, announced that Tlaib would be allowed to visit her elderly grandmother on the West Bank.
  • In the most bizarre bit of news, Trump reportedly has expressed interest in buying Greenland, a suggestion that should make us wonder whether he has gone completely off the deep end. His own staff seems to be wondering too: “The presidential request has bewildered aides, some of whom continue to believe it isn’t serious, but Trump has mentioned it for weeks.” Perhaps if they stall him for a while, he won’t order them to blow up the moon and build him a time machine.

In all this, it’s the economic news that really has Trump sweating. As any sensible observer understands, presidents get more credit than they deserve when the economy does well and more blame than they deserve when it does poorly, because most of what happens in a country with about 330 million people and more than $20 trillion of economic activity is out of their control.

Trump was given an economy in the midst of a steady recovery, which since then has continued on pretty much the same trajectory it was on (though job creation was somewhat better under President Barack Obama). Yet more than any other president in history, he has insisted that he deserves personal credit for every positive economic development, which could only be the result of his unique genius. He has a particular habit of visiting a factory that was approved or began construction when Obama was president and saying it was all because of him. “It was the Trump administration that made it possible. No one else,” he said this week outside a Shell plastics plant that had been planned since 2012 and which the company formally announced in 2016. “Without us, you would never have been able to do this.”

Meanwhile, whenever he creates a new controversy with some racist outburst, distressing public performance or new revelation of corruption on the part of himself and his appointees, Republicans everywhere offer the same argument: Okay, so that stuff isn’t exactly optimal, and yeah, I wish he’d tone down the bigotry and stop tweeting. But the economy is doing well, right?

You don’t need a PhD in political science to understand the threat this poses. If the economy does falter — even a slight slowdown, let alone a full-on recession — it could become almost impossible for Trump to win reelection. If he can’t argue that he has delivered prosperity, all that remains is the single most repugnant human being to ever sit in the Oval Office, befouling everything he touches.

Trump knows this as well as anyone. In his growing fear of that eventuality, he wants us all to be as afraid as he is: afraid of immigrants, afraid of socialism, afraid of dissenting voices, afraid of a changing society, afraid of the future.

As a political strategy, it’s certainly morally abhorrent, but it still might work. After all, if Trump didn’t have such skill at finding and stimulating what is worst in people, he wouldn’t have become president in the first place. And by this time next year, fear could be all he has left.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Could managing the economy be more complicated than Donald Trump thought?

Catherine Rampell: Trump has a dream team for mismanaging a recession

Robert J. Samuelson: Is the economy turning against Trump?

David Von Drehle: Trump’s economy was on fire two years ago. But voters have a short memory.