Even by the elementary school shouting match standards of conduct by which he is typically judged, President Trump's recent, disturbingly unglued behavior is a new low, and a politically unwise one at that. Lashing out hysterically against enemies real and imagined as the country crosses the grim threshold of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 only serves to sharpen the contrast between the ruined landscape of death, isolation, suffering and impoverishment that constitutes the lived reality of most Americans today and the cartoonish inability of President Trump and his stooges to do anything about it. His disastrous handling of the pandemic has destroyed his re-election prospects, and his escalating outbursts are proof that he knows it.
In the poker world, there is a phrase to describe the kind of China Syndrome of the soul that the president appears to be experiencing hourly: going "on tilt." It refers to a player who loses a tough hand due to bad luck and instead of walking away and taking a deep breath, decides to stick around and start throwing money angrily away on trash cards and steep odds. A player on tilt is literally a human ATM, dispensing money to the rest of the table. And like an aggrieved card shark, the best thing President Trump could do right now is hand someone his phone, designate a staffer to send harmless tweets every few hours on his behalf, and go for a long walk.
Instead, he's feuding with MSNBC personality Joe Scarborough, inflicting fresh trauma on a long-suffering family by spewing lurid and baseless accusations of murder. He's feuding with Twitter after the site slapped a fact-check on some of his craziest tweets. He's feuding with Fox News after determining that his personal television station and auxiliary cabinet is no longer sufficiently obeisant to him. He feuds with the governor of North Carolina, where the Republican National Convention either will or will not be held.
He continues to invest his manic, deranged energy into maligning vote-by-mail as some kind of Democratic Party conspiracy, laying the groundwork to spend the years after his defeat questioning its legitimacy. He signal boosts white supremacists and Holocaust deniers and free-associates ludicrously about a mythical conspiracy called OBAMAGATE that he himself cannot explain or even loosely describe. He slams Democratic governors for "reopening" too slowly even though he basically never leaves the White House, gets tested for the virus every day, and either does or does not take a drug that makes you more likely to die, just so he doesn't have to admit that his embarrassing, months-long sales pitch for it was wrong.
And you could be forgiven for gazing upon these fresh outrages and retreating to the "LOL nothing matters" position that has been a remarkably successful way of predicting the fallout from President Trump's daily indecencies over the past four years. This isn't his first extended tantrum or his first bizarre murder accusations or his first time publicly not caring or doing anything about mass tragedy or his first time appointing replacement level washouts to oversee critical government functions or his first time picking stupid fights with people just because he can, and none of it has finished him yet. The difference, of course, is that before the virus you could, if you wanted, compartmentalize the president's unseemly antics and focus on the roaring economy or the spectacular growth in your retirement account. After all, lots of people get rich working for unpleasant weirdos that they would prefer never to see or hear from. Just ask anyone at Tesla. But with tens of millions out of work and more than 100,000 Americans needlessly dead from COVID-19, the president no longer has an argument for re-election other than a nonsensical plea to let him rebuild what he himself destroyed.
As re-election narratives go, it's not a great one.
He knows it, too. Someone who spends as much time in front of the television flipping between cable networks as the president does cannot be unaware of his rapidly deteriorating electoral position. He trailed former Vice President Joe Biden in 42 out of 43 public polls released so far in May and 46 out of 48 in April. Of course, no serious analyst expects Trump to win the popular vote. The president's rapidly unraveling hopes for re-election rest almost entirely with another Electoral College miracle, and it's not looking good for him there either. Biden leads him in polling averages of nearly every critical battleground state, including the president's must-wins like Florida and North Carolina. After a brief mid-March improvement in his public approval ratings which happened to coincide with the roughly two week period where he pretended to be vaguely doing his job, voters have soured on his inept handling of the virus.
Breathless claims about "the beginning of the end" of the Trump presidency have become a kind of self-parody, and it's not something I've been completely immune from. The truth is that Trump's re-election has always rested on a significant number of people who think he's a vulgar, preening idiot going ahead and voting for him anyway because whatever, right? Those retirement statements! But such people are slipping away from him too, particularly older voters.
Their bargain with him surely did not include watching President Trump grotesquely mismanage the worst public health crisis in a century and cavalierly dismiss a daily 9/11 body count as collateral damage. It did not include the president doing real harm to other Americans by hawking untested remedies for the virus like some dark web hustler. It did not include seeing the president abdicate the federal government's critical role in coordinating the health response to the crisis because such an endeavor was too hard for Jared to pull off and too complex to be tackled with his usual combination of bluster and graft. It did not include the president and his friends basically saying it's okay if there is a massive reaping of everyone over the age of 70 so long as the S&P 500 remains inflated.
It doesn't help that the president has surrounded himself with lifeless sycophants and greed wraiths who go out on television and add negative value to the whole operation by making the worst predictions in human history, volunteering the elderly as tribute to die on behalf of the Dow and referring to the workers who would have to do the front-line dying necessary to "reopen" the country immediately as part of our "human capital stock."
Despite the pitiful attempts of right-wing flacks to rewrite history, declare victory, and shift public anger retroactively onto the lockdowns themselves, the American people aren't having it. They understand what's really going on here. They sacrificed for nothing. They risked agonizing, lonely deaths intubating patients or ringing up groceries or delivering packages so that America's coddled, emotionally incontinent president could sit in his bedroom conducting vanity feuds with other celebrities instead of doing his job.
They shut themselves in their houses and cut themselves off from friends and family for months and watched their little kids around the clock with no help and no respite while trying to work at the same time and said goodbye to loved ones over Zoom and did their best to cope with booze and drugs and mindfulness apps and then got up and did it all over and over and over again like they were trapped in some kind of nightmare time loop, all to buy this pitiful government time to stand up a test-and-trace system, only to see this instead. It's as if you donated part of your liver to someone and then looked on in horror as they marched right out of the hospital and into a bar and then texted you angrily about how the transplant wasn't necessary in the first place. Would you stay friends with that person?
The coronavirus pandemic and the American government's unconscionable, horror show of a response to it will forever be Donald Trump's legacy, and it will almost certainly cost him his office in November. Like a gangster on the lam finally getting tracked down by the cops, in some ways you have to think it will be a relief for him.
It will certainly be a relief for us.
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