There is one aspect of Donald Trump’s presidency that continues to be under-appreciated: the extraordinary lengths to which he and his propagandists regularly go to mask his political weakness and record of profound failure.

To put this a bit differently, Trump’s conduct is so outsize and crazy, and his advisers’ defenses of it are so strained and absurd, that we often end up overlooking the much more mundane explanation for all of this — that Trump is failing on many fronts, and as a result, he and his advisers fear he’ll lose reelection.

Politico has an illuminating new report that helps pry loose this mask. The gist is that Trump’s own advisers are aware that there are multiple flashing indicators right now that very well might put Trump’s reelection in serious doubt.

Among these: Trump’s trade war with China will likely worsen; his rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement might not pass Congress, denying him a badly needed victory on a signature issue; and the likelihood of a recession has increased.

Amid speculation of economic downturns over the years, Donald Trump has often seen value in the potential crashes. (JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

What’s more, the U.S. manufacturing sector just contracted by one very closely watched metric, and Trump’s trade wars are a key reason for that. Politico’s reporting is stark on the real meaning of this:

Trump internal and external advisers know one of their biggest vulnerabilities is weakness in American manufacturing, a sector the president promised to revive with his aggressive trade policy. The pledges helped Trump secure surprising — and quite narrow — wins in key states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.
But the manufacturing numbers are moving in the wrong direction for the president.

Keep in mind that Trump’s own advisers are saying this. Yet the unexciting explanation for much of what we’re seeing — that Trump and his advisers fear he’s failing and might lose reelection as a result — sometimes gets short shrift in cable discussions, which too often still proceed as if Trump has some sort of clever political trick up his sleeve.

Trump himself regularly tries to feed that impression. His latest play is to cast China as the one with the weaker hand, but in a new way. He is tweeting that China would prefer it if a Democrat defeats him in 2020, because that Democrat would allow China to keep ripping us off.

President Trump's ideas about trade seem to be stuck in the 17th century, says columnist Catherine Rampell. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

“And then, think what happens to China when I win,” Trump boasts. “Deal would get MUCH TOUGHER! In the meantime, China’s Supply Chain will crumble and businesses, jobs and money will be gone!”

First, note the deep folly of Trump claiming his “toughness” is in the process of working, after the colossal mess it has made so far. The Democrats are in the process of articulating an alternate vision for constraining unfair Chinese trade practices by leveraging international alliances against them. I’d say this will look pretty attractive to voters, now that they have seen what Trump’s unilateral “toughness” has wrought.

Indeed, implicit in Trump’s new posture is an admission of weakness. If you accept it at face value, it’s an acknowledgment that China actually does have an incentive not to make a deal with him — to make his reelection less likely.

After all, China doesn’t have to play along with Trump’s alternate reality, a place where Trump’s victory is certain and preordained, simply because he says it is. It might choose to wait him out instead — not because a Democratic president would be weaker, but rather because she wouldn’t be crazy, reckless, wildly erratic and impervious to fact and reason.

Indeed, Susan Glasser of the New Yorker counts more than 40 Trump tweets about China last month, and observes: “They veered wildly, almost day to day and hour to hour, on whether a deal or a whole new round of tariffs was imminent.”

There’s just no method to this. A better explanation is that Trump has no idea what to do next:

All this erratic behavior points to yet another underlying problem Trump faces:

Even a surprise detente with China on trade in the coming months — a prospect that seems increasingly unlikely given escalating rhetoric — may not be enough to reverse the sector’s decline.
“The primary slowdown in the economy is driven by the trade issue and it’s not really clear how manufacturing would respond if all that somehow got eliminated,” said Timothy R. Fiore, chair of the ISM’s Business Survey Committee. “It’s not like Trump and the Chinese could shake hands tomorrow and everyone could go back to business as usual.”

In this scenario, even if Trump does get a deal, his wild gyrating has already done its damage. If the deal isn’t a good one, he’ll still pay a price for it, because all that damage — which will continue — will show that it wasn’t worth it.

What Trump actually thinks about all of this is an interesting question. One former administration official tells Politico that Trump does believe that no matter how long the trade war drags on and no matter how much damage it does, he can spin it as a political win for himself, presumably in the Rust Belt, where his structural advantage in the electoral college resides.

It’s plausible that Trump fully believes this, and his advisers do not. It’s more plausible that Trump is feigning this belief even as doubts creep in; hence his yelling at aides.

In part because we all got it so wrong in 2016, leaving many of us in a defensive crouch, we don’t spend enough time pointing out the obvious: Trump probably fears he’s in serious danger, and he’s acting out more and more as a result.

It’s reasonable, of course, to believe that Trump still has a decent shot at getting reelected, given his incumbency. But this isn’t 2016 anymore. Trump has a record of serious failure to defend, and it very well might get worse from here. Whether Trump knows this or not, his advisers surely do.

Read more: