For years Trump had defied his critics’ expectations that he will politically implode. Prior to 2020, his mesmerizing high-wire act largely succeeded because the political challenges he faced meshed his character with the partisan temperament of the time. Republicans were fearful and angry and flocked to a man who promised to be the gunfighter who would save their town from destruction. Like the villagers in Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Seven Samurai,” they were willing to put up with bad behavior to prevent the bandits (read: progressives) from tearing up their way of life.
Trump’s bluster and divisiveness catered to Democratic prejudices and fears, too. Many had long thought that Republicanism was mere code for racism. Trump’s quick ascension to the head of the 2016 primary pack, in their eyes, merely confirmed their long-standing beliefs. His embrace of Republican Party staples such as supply-side economics and social conservatism also allied his distasteful character with positions that Democrats despise. They marveled that someone like Trump could survive without realizing that his abrasive behavior merely intensified long-standing disputes.
Foreign policy, which many had thought would be his downfall, proved to be an arena that worked with Trump’s personality. Democrats who favored negotiation with U.S. adversaries were outraged that Trump instead confronted them, often bluntly and in undiplomatic language. Republicans, who tend to prefer confrontation to talk, found the Trump act reassuring. By chance or wisdom, Trump defied his critics and avoided making bad deals with North Korea or China. Trump’s words, then, merely gave color to the underlying policy disputes that preexisted him. What voters saw depended on where they sat.
The coronavirus upended this neat symmetry. For the first time, many Republican-leaning voters were scared of something that did not stem from Democratic doctrine. While many denied the serious danger the virus posed, many more recognized the danger and wanted protection from it. They, like independents and Democrats, wanted a president who could display empathy and focus on fighting the disease rather than political enemies.
Trump manifestly failed to do this. His actual policies in fighting the virus’s spread were hit-and-miss — not as bad as many contend, but not as good as his fans profess either. His rhetorical leadership, however, has been a disaster. Trump’s ratings dropped nearly as soon as he began his daily news conferences, which increasingly became bizarre examples of performance art focused more on presidential vanity than public information. Virtually every other leader in the world saw their ratings rise — even soar — as they displayed empathy with a scared people and resolved to place safety first. Trump’s failure to demonstrate either started to push his marginal voters away.
George Floyd’s killing was another case of political malpractice. Much of the public wanted empathy and leadership; instead, they got the same mixture of blustering talk, weak walk and personal pique. Republican-leaning independents fled in droves, driving his job approval ratings below 42 percent and widening former vice president Joe Biden’s lead to double digits.
Trump’s critics have long argued that character is destiny and that his character would be his downfall. That appears to be correct, but not in the way they anticipated. It is his peculiar fascination with strength and his equation of empathy with weakness, not his divisive bluster, that may do him in. Pithily, being a heel is his Achilles’ heel.
The new coronavirus surge gives him his final chance to disprove this thesis and resurrect his nearly comatose campaign. He should admit error and say he underestimated the virus’s staying power. Donning a mask regularly, he should take a resolute safety-first approach, deploying military units to quickly construct and operate mobile hospitals in regions and states with taxed hospital capacity. Governors or mayors who reject that help should be faced down in the name of national health. He should visit hospitals and open the spigots of aid if necessary. He should be what his people want him to be: a man who fights unflinchingly for their welfare.
Brad Parscale’s demotion from his position as Trump campaign manager gives Trump the facade to let him blame someone else for his own missteps and change course. His fans surely hope he will, wishing that the third time is a charm. It’s likelier, however, to be his final at-bat. Three strikes and you’re out.