On Monday at a campaign rally in Sanford, Fla. — his first since being treated for covid-19 — President Trump pledged: “We are going to take whatever the hell they gave me, and we are going to distribute it around to hospitals and everyone is going to have the same damn thing.”
That’s always been the promise of the Trump franchise: You can have at least a little bit of what he’s got. You might not have a gilded living room or a model spouse. But you can buy a Trump steak, or stay in a Trump hotel, or gamble at a Trump-branded casino. For a long time, this enticement facilitated a clever sleight of hand, persuading ordinary Americans to root for a guy who revels in firing people.
Unfortunately for Trump, health care and vaccine development are not branding exercises, and critical medical discoveries are not steaks. Giving Americans “the same damn thing” that Trump received when he contracted the novel coronavirus would involve radically reconfiguring the nation’s health-care system to get ordinary people much more affordable and attentive medical attention.
In touting not just therapeutics but “cures,” Trump is marketing products that don’t actually exist. True believers might talk themselves into accepting any number of delays. But at some point, most consumers want to take delivery of the goods they’ve been promised.
In the waning days of what might prove to be its final season, the Trump Show feels as if it’s given up on the prospect of bringing in new viewers. Instead, it’s replaying the hits for longtime fans.
Trump repeatedly makes oblique references to efforts by his director of national intelligence to suggest that Trump was the victim of a nefarious Obama-administration plot to undermine his 2016 campaign. But he does so without providing context. It’s as if he is assuming that his audience has been whittled down to hardcore viewers who have been obsessively analyzing episodes for years.
There are references to “Sleepy Joe” and “Crooked Hillary,” a bingo game’s worth of call-outs to the wall, the Iran deal, fracking, Israel, MS-13, Portland, “cancel culture,” “sanctuary cities” and the stock market. On Monday, he groused about settling down to watch television with “my wife,” only to see “no mention” of his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, making it sound as though such nominations are an actual accolade, and as though he’d been cheated out of a chance to excel on a televised reality competition. And when Trump said that his crowd sizes were “the real polls,” he had the desperate air of a fan campaigner trying to persuade a cold and calculating television network to un-cancel a scrappy little television show.
Though they became more animated as Trump’s address went on, the crowd — functioning here as a live studio audience — seemed tired, too. They cheered and booed at the buzzwords, but they were hardly deafening. When Trump urged them to vote at two points in the speech, the response was decidedly muted.
The crowd in Florida periodically broke into chants of “We love you!” and “Four more years!” But the truth is that key elements of the Trump Show can easily be picked up by other standard-bearers.
One of his big early applause lines of the night was Trump’s declaration, “If I do not sound like a typical Washington politician, it’s because frankly, I’m not a politician. I’m embarrassed by the term.” It’s the rare Trump boast that needs no inflation — Trump is definitely atypical. Yet the claim of “outsider” is pretty typical political shtick. The hunger for politicians with new perspectives will outlast the Trump administration.
Trump drew big cheers when he pointed at reporters and said: “These people are the sickest of them all.” Other candidates might not go as far as Trump does at turning journalists into hate figures — they might not go as far as him in any respect. Still, Trump’s denunciations of the “fake news media” are likely to be a lasting element of conservative politics. Unlike “You’re fired,” that catchphrase can, and already has been, adopted by other ambitious Republicans.
Plenty of Americans hope the Trump Show will end in November. Even if it does, Trump has demonstrated that unrepentant antiheroes can thrive in American politics. He might be first and worst. But those of us watching at home should prepare for the fact that he won’t be the last.