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Opinion Trump’s entire reelection message amounts to an admission of failure

(Reuters/Leah Millis)

Given his monstrous narcissism and megalomania, it was only a matter of time until President Trump began campaigning for reelection on the notion that his own government has failed him.

Trump’s political advisers have hit on a new strategy to cope with the challenge of running for a second term amid the most severe public health and economic crises in modern times, the Associated Press reports.

That strategy is to run once again as an outsider, which requires using his own government as a foil. Trump advisers tell the AP that Trump will be positioned as the outsider relative to Joe Biden, which you can see in the new label that Trump propagandists have been applying to Biden: “swamp monster.”

But if you dig beneath the surface of this argument, it really amounts to an admission of failure on Trump’s part, if an unwitting one.

Trump’s reelection message actually has two main components to it. The first is the idea that we’re rapidly returning to normalcy — or “transitioning to greatness,” as Trump has recently begun to say.

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The interesting revelation reported on by the AP is that this campaign imperative — which was thrust on Trump and his advisers by his spectacular mismanagement of the pandemic — requires him to tacitly (and sometimes openly) attack his own government’s ongoing characterization of it.

To serve the illusion that we’re “transitioning to greatness,” Trump has been urging the country to reopen faster, regardless of whether states, in so doing, defy guidelines set by his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When Trump tweets the command to “REOPEN OUR COUNTRY,” he is saying the word of his own government’s experts and scientists should be defied or, to some extent, ignored.

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Anthony S. Fauci, the leading member of Trump’s own coronavirus task force, has urged extreme caution on this front, warning that if government directives are ignored, it could lead to “suffering and death that could be avoided.”

Trump has directly rebuked Fauci for this posture, recently accusing him of wanting to “play all sides of the equation.”

That’s not mere disagreement with Fauci. It’s a claim that Fauci is not representing his own views candidly and is placing his own media image before his mission to faithfully serve in Trump’s government. It’s an accusation of betrayal — at bottom, of him.

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Trump cannot fail. He can only be failed.

At times, Trump has made this even more explicit. He recently accused intelligence services of letting him down on the coronavirus, claiming that on Jan. 23, he got a briefing in which he was told that coronavirus was “not a big deal” and was “of no real import,” as Trump put it.

In a deep dive into that episode, the New York Times demolishes this defense. As current and former officials tell it, it’s impossible to get Trump to engage seriously with what the intelligence actually does say:

The president veers off on tangents and getting him back on topic is difficult, they said. He has a short attention span and rarely, if ever, reads intelligence reports, relying instead on conservative media and his friends for information. … Mr. Trump rarely absorbs information that he disagrees with or that runs counter to his worldview, the officials said.

What’s more, at that time, multiple officials throughout the government were, in fact, shrieking warnings about the coronavirus. And Trump continued dithering and failing to take the coronavirus seriously for weeks and weeks after that, so this defense isn’t exonerating in the least.

But again, Trump’s basic claim here is that his government failed him.

That’s galling on its own. But note what Trump is not saying here. He is not pointing to ways in which his own government, under his leadership, actually did scale up an early and robust federal response that actually did succeed in taming the virus.

Instead, here’s merely declaring that the coronavirus has been defeated and that it’s time to reopen, while simultaneously urging for this to happen in a way that leapfrogs his own experts.

When Trump does try to claim his government’s response has been robust — such as with his constant hyping of our substandard testing — he’s dissembling and lying.

At bottom, all of this amounts to an admission of failure. And this is even more starkly obvious on the economic front.

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Yes, Trump is to blame

The second major component of Trump’s reelection message is that, having built the greatest economy in the known history of the universe, he will do so again. This messaging is directly linked to Trump’s insistence on reopening, regardless of the risks, as the AP demonstrates:

“The first step in getting our economy booming again is to begin to reopen,” said Trump campaign spokeswoman Sarah Matthews. “Americans know the economy reached unprecedented heights under President Trump’s leadership before it was artificially interrupted by the coronavirus, and he will build it back up a second time.”

This idea rests on numerous distortions. Trump largely inherited the pre-coronavirus economic trends, and while the phrase “unprecedented heights” is deliberately vague, the bottom line is that by most metrics, the pre-coronavirus economy was not the greatest in U.S. history.

Nor is it right to say that the coronavirus “artificially interrupted” Trump’s glorious economic record. Trump’s failures are in no small part why the coronavirus rampaged out of control, requiring a more stringent economic lockdown than might otherwise have been necessary.

But regardless, the very use of this talking point is itself an admission of failure. Trump would never concede that he bears any blame for that failure. But we are under zero obligation to go along with that.

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