President Trump successfully markets a fictional version of himself. For years he has reaped immense rewards from that effort. But then his hallmark combination of incompetence and narcissistic overconfidence leads him to squander those rewards on ill-conceived schemes. Yet he continues milking his fictional image by peddling a series of increasingly transparent scams.

That works for a time. But then the bill finally comes due.

That is the story told in the second installment of the New York Times’s deep dive into Trump’s tax records, which has just been released.

But this narrative arc also appears increasingly likely to end up defining the story of Trump’s first and second presidential campaigns — that is, the story arc of Trump’s presidency.

We are likely to see this vividly dramatized when Trump appears at the first presidential debate on Tuesday night.

Trump is expected to try to rattle Joe Biden by attacking his son Hunter, and some Trump aides expect him to reiterate his silly claim that Biden is taking performance-enhancing drugs, CNN reports.

Indeed, Trump has privately mused that this will be the moment when voters “finally realize Biden is just not there,” as one Trump adviser told The Post. Trump has even called on Biden to “agree to a Drug Test.”

It’s hard to see how this will help Trump. The new Post-ABC News poll finds Biden leading in Pennsylvania by 54 percent to 45 percent, which is driven by serious erosion in Trump’s support among non-college-educated White voters, and by Biden’s enormous advantage among college-educated Whites.

The Post poll also finds that 57 percent disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and they trust Biden more to handle it by 54 percent to 40 percent. Biden also has a lopsided advantage on the central issue in the campaign nationally, where Biden leads by seven points.

Trump will likely try to offset this by lying about his handling of the virus while casting Biden as weak on China, its origin country. But we already know from Trump’s ABC News town hall that he’s utterly incapable of answering basic questions about his handling of the pandemic, at least when he’s outside the Fox News bubble and is therefore not permitted to lie with abandon.

And why would voters Trump has lost over the virus be drawn back to him by half-cocked rants about Biden’s supposed dementia? Similarly, attacks over the fake Hunter Biden scandal, which has also crashed and burned, will either be white noise to swing voters or will likely further alienate them from Trump.

Yet attacks like the one over dementia have been a mainstay on Fox News for months, as Matt Gertz shows. Trump hears this echoed back to him on Fox and likely grows persuaded it’s fearsomely effective, that he can make things into potent attack lines simply through force of his withering reality-bending powers.

The parallels with the narrative arc outlined in the latest Times exposé are eerie.

Trump’s ‘fictional alter ego’

As the Times reports, Trump’s launch of “The Apprentice” in 2004 was only yet another example of him creating a “fictional alter ego” that extended him a “financial lifeline to reinvent himself yet again.”

Even as Trump claimed on that show that his “negotiating skills” had made his company “bigger” and “stronger” than ever, he privately recorded losses in his tax returns for the previous year of nearly $90 million.

Yet Mark Burnett, the producer of “The Apprentice,” helped Trump spin the “illusion” of a successful Trump benevolently unlocking the secrets of business success for the masses, the Times reports, offering this perfect summary:

Mr. Trump’s genius, it turned out, wasn’t running a company. It was making himself famous — Trump-scale famous — and monetizing that fame.

Trump’s “fictional alter ego” did hit the jackpot. But he then dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into ventures that slid deep into the red, the report details, such as golf courses and resorts. And he kept drawing money out of loans of uncertain origin — loans that are set to come due.

Yet Trump continued squeezing his image as a successful businessman for all he could. The Times recounts that this led him deeper into schemes that crossed over into “flogging things that could hurt people economically” and “actively capitalized” on “desperate” people’s “economic anxiety” amid the Great Recession.

This culminated in Trump paying out $25 million in 2016 to settle a class-action lawsuit over his Trump University, which was supposed to school people in his business secrets but was accused of “systematically defrauding economically marginalized people.”

The scam goes full circle

Now assign Stephen K. Bannon to the role of Burnett in the 2016 political marketing of another fictional Trump, whose economic prowess and outsider status would be employed to avenge “forgotten” working-class Whites sold out by financial and globalist elites.

In numerous ways, Bannon and Trump rapidly abandoned that promise in tandem, as journalist Joshua Green chronicles, leaving the original pitch largely gone from his case for reelection. Trump’s supposed managerial acumen has helped lead to more than 200,000 U.S. deaths from covid-19 and has earned him the distinction of being the first post-World War II president to preside over a net job loss.

It is perfect that two producers of “The Apprentice” also helped produce Trump’s convention, which peddled the immensely fraudulent claims that his stupendous, benevolent leadership largely vanquished coronavirus and that the biggest threat to the rule of law is organized, violent leftist terrorism.

At the debate, when Trump peddles his various lies about the virus and Biden with the same zeal that he made a couple million bucks by “selling hope in a vitamin bottle,” the scam will hit rock bottom. But the bill is coming due.

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