Trump’s Fantasies

I alone can fix it. — Donald Trump, accepting the 2016 Republican nomination for president. 

I alone can fix it because I alone broke it. — Not said, but the message from Trump’s speech accepting the 2020 Republican nomination for president.

Good enough for the Trump campaign in 2016, still good in 2020

It is as if we are watching the same tape, a loop that repeats and repeats. Donald Trump is the incumbent president, running a campaign reminiscent of the one he ran four years ago. He tried to shift slogans a while back, from “Make America Great Again” to “Keep America Great,” but the latter is a tough sell in the middle of a pandemic, high unemployment, and civil unrest. So, MAGA it is again, even if the “again” is a tad awkward nearly four years into Trump’s presidency. 

The sense of déjà vu is reinforced by the decision to ditch the usual exercise in platform writing and run again on the document adopted in 2016. Nothing wrong, in theory, in repeating the promises and criticisms of the previous campaign, except it raises the nagging question of why the Trump administration has to promise to do in its second term what it promised to do in its first. Also awkward are such sentences as this: “The current Administration has abandoned America’s friends and rewarded its enemies,” a barb aimed at the Obama administration that could be easily interpreted as the GOP platform criticizing the Republican president. Oh, well, no one reads platforms, anyway. 

Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow spoke of COVID-19 in the past tense

Platforms are the prose of a campaign; convention speeches, the poetry. Not that there was much poetry at the just-concluded Republican National Convention. Instead, there was fantasy. All America was surprised to learn the pandemic is over. We all missed that tidbit, but COVID-19 was mentioned as little as possible, and, on one occasion, in the past tense. “It [the pandemic] was awful,” opined Larry Kudlow, Trump’s senior economic adviser and noted epidemiologist. And, when the Trump administration was not saying COVID-19 is not dangerous, it was demonstrating it. At least, that is the takeaway from seeing all those applauding Trump fans sitting cheek by unmasked jowl on the White House lawn listening to the president speak. 

Donald Trump accepting the 2020 Republican presidential nomination

Fantasy was the theme of Trump’s acceptance speech: “Greatest economy in history” is hard to reconcile with high unemployment, and “I say modestly that I have done more for the African-American community than any president since Abraham Lincoln,” arguable as a perversion of Lincoln’s reputation and absurd as a supposition that Trump is ever “modest.” Fantasy appeared in Trump’s abuse of the naturalization process when he televised at the convention the naturalization ceremony of five newly minted American citizens, without, apparently, telling at least two they were being used as propaganda. Many of the speeches were fantastical as well, portraying a kinder gentler Trump who pardons suffragists and a bank robber, expresses concern for the well-being of his aides, represents a party that celebrates the removal of the Confederate flag (“a divisive symbol,” said former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley), and believes gratitude is more important than grievance (according to Vice President Mike Pence).

The well-armed McCloskeys

The kindler, gentler Trump was a naked play for the votes of college-educated, minority, and independent voters alienated by three-plus years of presidential vitriol, name calling, and lawbreaking from the White House. But, this being a Trump renomination extravaganza, there also was plenty of red meat for the base. In his acceptance speech, Trump accused Democrats of standing “with anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters, and flag burners.” He said Democrats remained “completely silent about rioters and criminals spreading mayhem in Democrat-run cities.” And, the convention invited Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the gun-wielding St. Louis couple, to tell the faithful, “No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.” Given the origin of their notoriety, it does not take much imagination to understand the barely coded message: Not safe from people of color.

Trump has two problems in running for reelection. First, his administration has been an abject failure, with more than 180,000 Americans dead from the pandemic, the economy in tatters, and protests against systemic racism roiling the nation’s cities. Hence, the need to pretend the virus is in the rear view mirror, extol the record-breaking stock market, and highlight Black speakers at the convention (as Ruth Marcus writes in The Washington Post, there were probably more African Americans speaking than sitting in the audience). 

Challenger Mitt Romney debating President Barack Obama in 2012

Trump’s second problem is an inability to define his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. As Nate Cohn notes in The New York Times, the last two incumbents to seek reelection, George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012, used their conventions to paint their opponents with a negative brush. Bush depicted John Kerry as a flip-flopper who tried to have it both ways on the Iraq War, and Obama portrayed Mitt Romney as a rapacious plutocrat who symbolized the policies eroding middle-class industrial jobs in the Midwest. Trump and his lackeys have tried to describe Biden negatively, calling him “Beijing Biden” or “Sleepy Joe,” the latter a particularly tough sell given Trump’s ample, lumbering physique contrasted to trim, lively stepping Biden and the president’s frequent slurring of words that makes his challenger appear positively eloquent. 

Joe Biden campaigning during the primaries

Then, there is the “Trojan horse” charge, the accusation that Biden is either a closet socialist or a front-man easily manipulated by radicals such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders or New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Biden as stealth candidate has not gained much traction either, largely because, as I have written, the public sees the former vice president as “reasonable.” 

Fantasy is what is left. Trump must pretend the problems are not that bad, and regardless, he alone can fix them. The public is asked to ignore the nasty fact that those problems occurred on his watch. That may be a fact, but how important are facts to an administration that has touted “alternative facts” from the very beginning?

Posted September 1, 2020

 

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