Anxious Democrats imagine Donald Trump as a political Houdini—a genius at escaping the most dire political straits. Somehow, they fear, he will summon serial October surprises beyond the capacity of lesser mortals.
In truth, Trump is America’s ersatz Wizard of Oz—a one-trick faux populist with deep but finite appeal who, in 2016, filled the mother of inside straights. By 2018, he had squandered his winnings. In 2020, he’s become the little man behind the curtain, brutally exposed by his own incompetence and instability.
Forget the first three-and-two-third years of self-aggrandizing incompetence. Just take the last three weeks—during which Trump has demonstrated the survival instincts of Jim Jones in his final hour at Jonestown. He is committing electoral suicide, and taking his party with him.
His repugnant debate performance last week was a belligerent exercise on self-immolation. So divorced from normal humanity is he that Trump reimagined his protean repulsiveness as riveting dominance.
Especially jarring was his profound dissociation from an ongoing pandemic which had killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Even as he mocked Biden for wearing a mask, his retinue flouted public health protocols with the heartless élan of an amoral elite saying of the dead and dying “let them eat COVID.”
America recoiled. By a margin of nearly two to one, viewers thought that Trump had lost a debate he desperately needed to win. His instant decline in national polls was reflected in battleground states. This is genius in reverse—a fatal inability to see himself as others do: a repellent blowhard and bully indifferent to the travails of anyone else.
Trump’s subsequent horrific response to contracting COVID-19 provided a merciless x-ray into the depths of his personality disorder. Straining to show his imperviousness to a mere pandemic, Trump endangered the lives and health of coworkers, Republican leaders, and the Secret Service agents charged with his protection. In his infinite vainglory, he stifled disclosure of his actual condition while cosseted by an extraordinary level of care unavailable to anyone else.
As for his own carelessness in contracting the virus, Trump cast it as an act of courage worthy of a truly extraordinary leader. “Don’t be afraid of COVID,” he urged his fellow Americans—after all, “I feel better than I did 20 years ago!” Little wonder, an infectious disease specialist told the Washington Post: “Steroids make everyone feel better.” Would that 210,000 dead Americans and counting could feel the same—including those who died from believing Donald Trump.
Those he put at risk included his wife, press secretary, campaign manager, close personal aides, the RNC chairwoman, and three Republican senators. Despite this, the White House shunned contact tracing for guests at Trump’s rollout for Amy Coney Barrett—a blatant violation of the government’s public health protocols that likely sickened most of these attendees.
Unsurprisingly, a CNN poll found that 63 percent of Americans believed the president had acted “irresponsibly” in “handling the risk of coronavirus infection to the people who have been around him.” His poll numbers slipped further, fresh confirmation of Trump’s distinctive gifts.
Yet Trump remained confident that what America wanted was more Trump. Even though a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that 59 percent of voters thought Trump should postpone the October 15 debate until he recovers, he stubbornly insisted he would appear. That lasted until yesterday, when the debate commission decreed that safety required a virtual debate, whereupon Trump—denied the live audience that makes him feel alive—huffed that he would do a rally instead, further flaunting his contempt for public health measures. Whatever course he chooses, this will not end well.
Even his family wondered at his behaviors. According to sources quoted by Gabriel Sherman in Vanity Fair, “Don Jr. thinks Trump is acting crazy.” Of Trump’s children, one source told Sherman, “They’re all worried. They’ve tried to get him to stop tweeting.” Among medical professionals, speculation mounted that large doses of steroids needed to counteract serious cases of COVID were turbocharging Trump’s grandiosity.
That would explain Trump’s newest act of insanity: unilaterally and peremptorily canceling negotiations for a badly needed second round of stimulus. Here, yet again, reason fails.
The economy is stalled; people are suffering in ways visible to everyone but Trump, belying his claims of an imminent turnaround. Unemployment remains at near-record levels; millions are losing their healthcare; thousands of small businesses are dying; layoffs are escalating; hotels are closing; state and local governments face massive deficits which will strand still more public employees.
By a margin of three to one, Americans believe that Trump should prioritize coronavirus relief over bulldozing Barrett’s confirmation. In his solitary grandeur, Trump believes otherwise. Endangered Republican senatorial and congressional candidates, murmuring feeble dissents, are perceiving too late that Trump’s Kool-Aid is poisoned.
Its most deadly ingredient is COVID-19. Seven months ago, our ersatz wizard proclaimed that the virus would disappear—appropriately enough—“like a miracle.” As Trump availed himself of superb medical care, 21 states showed a rise in new cases—including the electorally critical states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Nationwide hospitalizations rose for the first time since July. It is hardly a coincidence that among the most vulnerable Americans, seniors, Biden leads by more than 20 points. Trump may outlive the virus, but it is killing his campaign.
Given Trump’s burgeoning plague of political locusts, the revelation of his tax records last week seems to have occurred half a lifetime ago. But this particular mortification exposed that, as a businessman, Trump was less wizard than chiseler. He paid no federal income taxes in 11 of 18 years; took highly dubious write-offs to shelter his income; showed staggering business losses; and now faces hundreds of millions in loans which will shortly come due.
Though damaging in themselves, these revelations come bearing grave adverse implications. They expose Trump’s vulnerability to leverage from outsiders, making him a potential national security risk. They suggest that he must win re-election to avoid criminal prosecution for, at the least, tax fraud. And they may explain an underlying reason for his enthrallment by Russia: debt.
Trump was never a brilliant businessman—he was a sociopath who used bullying, bankruptcy, and branding to perpetuate a false image of success. As an entrepreneur, and as president, he now stands exposed as a narcissistic fraud.
After enduring four years of Trump, too many Americans see this too clearly. He has done that to himself, and it is lethal. Character is, after all, fate.
If Joe Biden can simply stay safe, you can stick a fork in the man behind the curtain.