Coronavirus is taking all the fun out of being president
The trucks are still there for him — White House staff arranged a visit from 18-wheelers last week, reportedly to boost the presidential mood — but the pandemic has put the pomp and adoration in marked decline. Trump's June rally in Tulsa was poorly attended, and a subsequent rally in New Hampshire was canceled. Featured events on the re-election website are all virtual.
"At this point in 2016, Trump was already holding several rallies each week, including a double-header in Nevada and Arizona on June 18 and a three-day span in late July that featured six rallies in four states over 72 hours," Politico reports. But for the 2020 race, COVID-19 has precluded a similar schedule; since March, Trump has had just two big campaign events, one of them severely disappointing.
The coronavirus is taking all the fun out of being president. Could it make the presidency so dull Trump wouldn't want it at all?
I think it could. Or, at least, I think the pandemic could make the presidency dull enough that a loss wouldn't sting so badly, because Trump could tell his fans (and himself) he's moving on to a more important project: television.
A common theory of Trump's 2016 campaign was that its real goal was not election but hype, perhaps for his personal brand generally or perhaps for a forthcoming media venture. "[W]ith Trump facing a potential wipeout on Nov. 8, there is a growing sense that he'll start a news network in 2017," The Atlantic's Derek Thompson wrote a few weeks before Election Day in a representative take.
That timeline is long ruined, but the general theory still makes sense. Trump is visibly uninterested in the work of his office. He likes being head of state; he does not like being head of government. He likes campaigning; he doesn't like governing — and he isn't good at it, either. Rhetoric and stagecraft, yes; actual politics, no. He has the instincts of a salesman and the mental cadence of a reality TV producer.
Trump could wallow in pomp and adoration daily if he went back to television. He could pull record viewership and shape the national conversation nearly as he does now, albeit without any of the tedious parts, like the constant insistence that he read long, boring things. He undoubtedly knows this.
A Washington Post article published after Trump's victory tossed out the idea that he might start a channel during his presidency. He didn't, perhaps because his campaign rallies, which never really stopped after his election, provided much of the mass public engagement he craves. Now they're gone and could stay gone for a year or more. That leaves Trump staring down a possible second term bereft of what an unnamed Trump adviser recently described to CNN as a needed "release [which] takes some pressure off of his psyche and him believing that he's not getting his narrative out and everyone's against him."
It conjures a second term that's all work and no fun, without even the uplifting prospect of another win four years down the line. Sure, there's still Twitter, Fox, and OANN. Official White House events may sometimes be co-opted with an off-script gambol into self-glorification or partisan scorn. But it's just not the same. No tweet can replicate the roar of the crowd — the glory days of "Send them back!" and "Lock her up!"
Speculation that Trump TV is finally happening pops up with some regularity, and maybe this iteration will prove as unfounded as its predecessors. But the pandemic matters. The spring TV season is over, but the pandemic storyline hasn't ended. It resists all Trump's usual tactics of narrative management and puts him in real jeopardy of becoming the unusual incumbent to lose his re-election bid. And even if he wins, COVID-19 will likely be with us for some time.
Meanwhile, the fun TV promises remains unchanged — and we find Trump lately tweeting that the media is "a far more difficult adversary than their Radical Left Do Nothing Democrat Partner." "The Radical Left has scared Fox into submission," he announces, and the American people are left yearning for something new. And wouldn't you know it, Trump himself gets great ratings! In fact, the media really can't do without him.
Perhaps, I can see him musing ever so casually on Twitter in weeks to come, the real fight isn't against Sleepy Joe Biden after all. Perhaps Trump must move on to a more important enemy, the Lamestream Media itself, which he realizes from personal experience must be defeated before any Republican president can execute an agenda of American greatness unimpeded. Perhaps he really understands, now, the Breitbart doctrine — "politics is downstream from culture" — and has decided to move upstream to make possible GOP presidencies to come.
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