Every night of this week’s virtual Republican convention is featuring President Trump as he labors to convince Americans to reelect him despite presiding over the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, contributing to the at least 173,000 Americans dead from the pandemic and facing huge demonstrations over the racial tensions that he loves to fan. Even more challenging, he must once more beguile the victims of his greatest con: the working men and women who voted for him, believing his promise that he’d take on the establishment that failed them.

Like the proverbial peddler of snake oil, Trump won’t be confined by the truth. He’ll sell a mythic past and a magical future. Perhaps he’ll even float a miracle cure for the pandemic. As for the calamity, he’s already told us, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” He’ll blame the Chinese, the “deep state,” Barack Obama, antifa, socialists. What is hard to hide, however, is his betrayal of the working people who propelled him to office.

Trump promised to overturn the establishment that had rigged the economy against them. He would bring back good jobs (especially in manufacturing) with “America first“ trade policies and by taking on China. He would replace Obamacare with a cheaper and better system. He would rebuild America’s decrepit infrastructure, “drain the swamp” and make America great again.

It was all a con. His first priority and major “accomplishment” was a tax-cut bill that lined the pockets of CEOs and investors, while the promised $4,000 raises for working families never showed up. The bill even slipped in lower tax rates for companies that moved jobs abroad. Trump slapped tariffs on China, rewrote the North American Free Trade Agreement and gelded the World Trade Organization. But his gyrations offered little help to working people. Even in Trump’s best year before the pandemic, the economy didn’t grow as fast as it had in the peak years under Obama or George W. Bush, and the millions of manufacturing jobs he promised to bring back never showed up.

Instead, his tariff wars disrupted the markets for farmers — so he ladled out tens of billions in public subsidies, only for most of that money to go to big, industrial farms while smaller farmers got stiffed. He never offered an alternative to Obamacare, though he did whittle away at it, depriving millions of coverage. He never put forward an infrastructure plan. He didn’t even get much of the wall built, and the U.S. military, not Mexico, paid for what was done.

Nor did Trump ever have any intention of “draining the swamp,” if that meant curbing the influence of big money and entrenched corporate interests in Washington. As he admitted after the election, when the slogan was suggested by aides, he tried it out on the stump, and “the place went crazy,” so “I started saying it like I meant it.”

For Trump, cleaning out the swamp turned out to be — as his former top strategist, the recently indicted Stephen K. Bannon, put it — the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Instead of curbing big money and entrenched interests, he unleashed their lobbyists to roll back regulations that protect consumers, small business and the environment from their depredations — from clean air and water protections to antitrust enforcement. The clear and present threat posed by catastrophic climate change was simply denied. His recent assault on the post office is already hitting seniors and veterans, many in the rural counties that voted for him, who depend on the Postal Service to deliver their medicines.

Working men and women — the essential workers of all races — suffered directly from Trump’s failure to respond sensibly to the pandemic. Now their children in public schools — pushed to open without resources for needed precautions — will be at risk in Trump and his party’s rush to get the economy going before November. And most cruelly, Trump and the Republican Senate are blocking continued assistance to the millions who have been thrown out of work as the economy shut down. He promised them good jobs. He ended by torpedoing the help they need simply to pay the rent.

This week, the real question is whether Trump can con his own followers once more. At their convention, Democrats focused on Trump’s lack of character and competence. But as despair rises, Trump’s “violation of norms” or the fact that, as his sister Maryanne Trump Barry said, he has “no principles,” aren’t his greatest weaknesses. His true vulnerability is that he has betrayed those who brought him to power. Over the next 70 days, Democrats must make certain that reality doesn’t get drowned out.

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How do conspiracy theories and racism move from the fringe to a political platform? The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has found the way. (Parjanya Christian Holtz/The Washington Post)

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