Former president Donald Trump’s secret weapon has always been that it is hard for educated people to take him seriously. He acts like a preening buffoon with pretensions of grandeur — doltish and delusional in equal measure. Everything about him, from his orange tan and bad combover to his insistence that he is a “very stable genius,” screams: Are you kidding me?

How can we take seriously someone who insisted that taking hydroxychloroquine, or possibly injecting bleach, could cure covid-19? Or who keeps on claiming, as he did in North Carolina on Saturday, that the election was “the crime of the century” even though more than 60 lawsuits alleging election irregularities have been dismissed by the courts?

Now Trump is avidly tracking a cuckoo audit of votes in Maricopa County, Ariz., where a group of conspiracy theorists is looking for evidence of bamboo fibers to show that fraudulent ballots were shipped from Asia. Most bizarre of all, Trump reportedly now insists that he will be reinstated as president in August. Doesn’t this ignoramus know there is no reinstatement clause in the Constitution?

But while Trump is not a serious person, he is a serious threat to our democracy — and we make a grave mistake if we dismiss him as a punch line. We’ve committed that blunder before. Recall that the star of “The Apprentice” was driven to run for the presidency partly because of the ridicule he received from comedian Seth Meyers and then-President Barack Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Meyers even said: “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican — which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.”

When Trump did run in 2015, most of the bien pensant refused to take him seriously. HuffPost initially announced that it was covering his campaign in its entertainment, not politics, section, because “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow.” (That decision was reversed in December 2015.) The Hillary Clinton campaign hoped Trump would win the Republican nomination because he was seen as so easy to beat. I, too, never imagined Trump would win a single primary, much less the Republican nomination, much less the presidency.

Trump benefited, even more than George W. Bush, from being “misunderestimated” by his opponents. The same has been true of many demagogues. For rational people, it’s hard to take seriously preening popinjays such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Like Trump, many of them have also been in denial about covid-19. Lukashenko, for example, said people could take a sauna or drink vodka to “poison the virus,” and Bolsonaro insisted Brazilians “never catch anything.”

Past demagogues have been even weirder. Turkmenistan’s Saparmurad Niyazov filled the country with golden statues of himself, banned opera and ballet, and encouraged people to chew on bones. Haiti’s Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier dressed like Baron Samedi, the voodoo spirit of the dead, and forced schoolchildren to pray to him in a parody of the Lord’s Prayer beginning “Our Doc, who art in the National Palace for life.” Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi surrounded himself with female bodyguards in “camouflage fatigues, red nail polish and high-heeled sandals” and blamed calls for his removal on youths “fueled by milk and Nescafé spiked with hallucinogenic drugs.”

They all could have come straight from the set of Sacha Baron Cohen’s satire “The Dictator” or Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” But the joke is on us. What has made dictators and demagogues so dangerous is their ability to pull vast numbers of people into their personal delusions — to turn their paranoid fantasies and megalomaniacal dreams into a harsh reality for millions.

Trump has the same malign gift. Despite presiding over what was arguably the worst presidency in U.S. history — with 400,000 dead from covid-19 during his term and the economy in ruins — he won more votes in 2020 (74.2 million) than in 2016 (62.9 million). Now, even after having incited a mob attack on the Capitol, Trump enjoys the approval of roughly 80 percent of Republicans. A Reuters-Ipsos poll even found that 53 percent of Republicans believe Trump is the “true president” now.

If Trump runs again, he will easily win the Republican nomination. Despite his unpopularity with Democrats and independents, he might even win the presidency again — particularly if his opponent is not President Biden, a blue-collar White guy, but Vice President Harris, a woman of color who is a perfect target for his racist and sexist taunts. Even if he doesn’t return to the White House, Trump could provoke more political violence, as he did on Jan. 6.

I’m relieved that the news media are not covering Trump’s every inane and ignorant pronouncement, as they did in 2015 and 2016, because that only increased his appeal. But, please, don’t make the same mistake we made back then of assuming he is not a viable candidate for the presidency. His ability to hornswoggle tens of millions of voters is no laughing matter.

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