But most of all, Trump extrapolated the “framing of Michael Flynn” into a deep state plot to destroy his presidency conducted by the FBI, intelligence officials and President Barack Obama. The president now calls this “OBAMAGATE!” and charges his predecessor with the “biggest political crime in American history.” Trump made his case, in part, by retweeting QAnon conspiracy accounts. And he spread the threatening meme: “HOPE YOU HAD FUN INVESTIGATING ME. NOW IT’S MY TURN.”
It is always difficult to determine how much of President Trump’s daily communication results from compulsion and how much results from calculation. But it has been Trump’s unique genius to turn the appearance of mental breakdown into effective political maneuvering. And we are seeing his approach take shape: a strategy of distraction to obscure a policy of abdication.
It is admittedly not easy to distract the attention of the nation from 80,000 covid-19 deaths, a good portion of which were avoidable. Trump’s late and reluctant embrace of sound scientific advice on the pandemic, and his early and enthusiastic undermining and abandonment of that advice, constitute the worst response to a national crisis since Herbert Hoover. Perhaps the worst response to a national crisis since James Buchanan.
The sum of all Trump’s picked fights, childish slights and transgressive tweets is an attempt to divert attention away from a historic fiasco. In pursuit of this goal, being unhinged is a virtue. Irrationality is a rational option.
Previous attempts at more conventional crisis communications failed badly, and revealingly. Recall when Trump tried to give a speech to the nation in March outlining his pandemic response. His remarks were rhetorically flat, poorly delivered, riddled with factual errors and entirely unequal to the moment. As is often the case, a failure of presidential communication revealed a series of deeper, more substantive failures. In the midst of a crisis, the Trump White House could not even produce a middling speech because its policy process is nonexistent; because Trump has chosen morally and intellectually mediocre White House advisers; because the president has no respect for the power of words and is incapable of public empathy or inspiration. And when Trump was given a format better suited to his style — his daily novel coronavirus task force briefings — he regularly revealed profound and disturbing ignorance.
In light of these limitations, a tweetstorm solidifying the hatred and conspiracy thinking of Trump’s core supporters must seem an attractive alternative.
Trump’s refusal to engage in traditional presidential discourse has another possible explanation. His current policy in the coronavirus crisis is not something he would want to describe out loud. Trump is now completely deferring to states — while pressuring them to restart business activity — because he has given up on a federal strategy to ensure universal, high-quality testing and tracing. It is far easier to blame the governors for future deaths and to claim the credit for future economic growth.
Trump seems to have adopted a “let it burn” pandemic strategy that assumes broad infection and high casualties are inevitable on the road to herd immunity. He hints at his approach — describing citizens as “warriors” who may have to sacrifice for the good of the country — but he clearly doesn’t want to make his view plain. So major policy statements by the president, or others in the White House, are not particularly useful. At this stage of the crisis, clarity is Trump’s enemy.
We have seen the complete breakdown of presidential communication on covid-19. But that, it seems, is exactly where Trump wants to be. It is better for him if the country fixates on his conspiratorial madness, rather than focusing on his utter failure and willingness to sacrifice lives.