How Trump Can Win… And Why He Cannot

Axios interview, August 3, 2020
Axios interview, August 3, 2020

Donald Trump has always been graded on a curve. Expectations are so low that his most meager attempt to act presidential or do something helpful is always well rewarded. When he sticks to a prepared speech on a teleprompter more than a few minutes, the inevitable story line is that the prodigal son has returned home. What a big boy he is, he finished his vegetables… It would be relatively easy for him to impress independents and the dwindling number of voters who have not yet made up their minds. He could reassure wavering 2016 Trump voters, that are practically begging him to give them a reason to stay with him. But that would require him to be someone that he is not… and cannot be… and never will be. He is Donald Trump.

He is never going to admit a failing, hold his impulsive tongue, honor constitutional checks and balances (not to mention norms), act kindly, trust in the judgement and expertise of others, follow congressional statutes, be respectful, seek compromise, change his mind, voluntarily disclose his taxes and business records, praise others, seek racial and cultural harmony, exercise self-control, put the public interest above his own, make sympathetic comments, act dignified, listen to advisors, avoid an adversarial approach, honor his commitments and contracts, recognize his lack of preparedness, try to unify rather than divide, express regret, act with humility, tolerate the legitimacy of his political opponents, accept responsibility, avoid needless antagonizing of others, work cooperatively, study the issues and prepare in advance, offer support to others’ initiatives, forgive his adversaries, withhold judgement until the facts are known, restrain his use and abuse of presidential power, be democratically transparent… and he most certainly is never going to stop his compulsive pathological lying. Whether he wants to or intends to is moot. He simply cannot.

It’s often said that Trump “knows exactly what he is doing,” and that he is somehow “masterful” at politics. This argument comes sometimes from his supporters — the same ones who believe he is masterful at business and the economy; it also comes from his opponents as a backward compliment as if he is an evil genius. And both cite his 2016 win as evidence. Yet in truth, his victory was in spite of a bizarre campaign, not because of it. A great portion of his dysfunctional campaign consisted of his staff rushing to justify his actions as part of an intentional plan rather than the random chaos that it really was — like a road crew trying to build a road in front of a drunken driver. No campaign manager would recommend his “strategy”— even after the fact — because his election was really the result of a perfect storm of highly unlikely events all coming together in his favor. And rolling a one on a die once does not make it more likely that a one will be rolled the next time.

So no, although it apparently works on some people, narcissistic behavior isn’t some clever ploy to show his toughness as an Alpha male. It’s who he is, and no amount of pleading by his allies and advisors is going to change that, especially when he seems to be a classic example of the Dunning–Kruger effect as well.

It’s tempting to itemize the last four years of evidence, but let’s consider for a moment just a few of his very recent responses to some issues and consider how easy it would be for him to bolster a more positive image of himself and improve his election chances.

— Given a soft-ball opportunity in the recent Axios interview to comment on the death of Congressman John Lewis, he could have easily offered a kind and respectful word as virtually all politicians do. Instead, he complained that Lewis made a “big mistake” by not attending his inauguration and minimized his work by saying “there were many others also.” Now some might think this intentional as to not antagonize his hard-core base. But at this point, there’s really nothing he could do to lose them. Further, he could have said something like “Well, it’s well-known that we had our differences, but I respect that he was a tough opponent and man of his convictions,” not giving an inch but being respectful nonetheless. Instead, he just reinforced his petty, inconsiderate nature, and reminded us that as always, it’s about his feelings and how things affect him… nothing else and nobody else matters.

Axios interview with Jonathan Swan, August 3, 2020

— In that same interview, his response to the growing number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States was “it is what it is.” How hard can it be to say a couple of sympathetic comments and reassure the country that he would take responsibility for this crisis? Most Americans still do not blame him personally for the deaths, but that is quickly changing due to his seeming unwillingness to admit the plain and obvious facts. One of his most supportive voter blocs in 2016 was the elderly — who are now disproportionately at risk. Yet rather than reassure them, his instinctual response is to discount the problem, point out how it is not his fault, and argue that the United States is doing the best job in the world and that nobody could be doing a better job than him.

— Similarly, while Americans (voters!) have been long clamoring for more access to quick results COVID-19 testing, he repeatedly claims that excessive testing is bad because it makes his “numbers” look bad. It would be easy to get credit for [at least] campaigning for better testing, but The Apprentice star’s instinct is to concern himself first and foremost with his ratings.

— Trump has now been asked repeatedly for a response to his own intelligence agencies’ reports about Russian-backed bounties on American troops in Afghanistan. I can’t imagine any other politician not promising to take immediate action to get to the bottom of the story and if necessary, respond with sanctions or other actions, possibly requesting action from Congress as well. Yet Mr. Tough Guy’s repeated answer is that it’s “fake news” and that nobody told him. In other words, he is saying that (1) he doesn’t read his intelligence briefings, and that (2) either he somehow knows the intelligence is false, or his aides are lying and negligently withholding information from him. Even if this were all true, surely he knows now; wouldn’t it be easy to score political points by waiving a stick at Putin because of it? But no, he just keeps repeating that he didn’t know, because of course it’s about him… not American soldiers.

— When asked about the recent explosion in Beirut, which seems highly likely to have been an accident, albeit negligence, Trump could have commented on the lost lives and made assurances that US intelligence was investigating the incident. In other words, he could have gotten credit for acting presidential and in charge. Instead, he impulsively and irresponsibly blurted out that “his generals” told him that just from looking at the viral videos, it must have been a bomb. He simply cannot resist his childlike urge to invent something dramatic and get the limelight for being in the know.

— Although many Americans, including many Republicans, would like to be able to vote by mail to avoid exposure to COVID-19, Trump’s response is to once again return to the discredited theory of massive voter fraud that his own presidential commission rejected. There’s no solid nation-wide evidence that mail-in voting particularly favors either party, but Trump is hell-bent on cultivating this excuse for his likely loss in November. According to Democrats, he’s willing to sabotage the Postal Service as well in that endeavor, needlessly antagonizing voters who depend upon prompt mail service (especially during the pandemic!) for their checks, medicine, etc. So rather than getting credit for assisting the effort to promote a clean and safe election, he chooses to discredit the legitimacy of the US presidential election (!) to protect his pride.

What is astonishing is that he doesn’t even try to hide his intentions. Trump routinely announces his motivation freely and on camera, telling us his decisions are based on his ratings, petty jealousy (e.g., Fauci and other medical experts), his public image, his personal interests and profit, his ego, his personal relationships, his gut instincts, and his belief in his own brilliance: A vaccine will be ready by November 3 and that will help his election. Mail-in voting means Republicans will never win; it’s okay in Florida though, because there is a friendly Republican governor there. Events would be best hosted at one of his properties. Joe Biden will “hurt God.” He’s done more for African-Americans than any president except possibly Lincoln. A presidential appointee gave him a big donation or “looks the part.” He doesn’t need advice because he has “a good brain” and “good genes.” Federal officers will be sent to “Democratic cities.”

He routinely violates what his first grade teacher surely told him: “Children, some of your ideas should be your inside thoughts. You don’t have to share them with everyone out loud.”

Trump claims— and actually believes — that he knows more than “his” scientists, generals, economists, political advisors, diplomats, budget specialists, attorneys, epidemiologists, and everyone really, setting a standard to which only the most cultish supporter could agree. But most Americans don’t expect a president to be a walking encyclopedia and enlightened philosopher. They do, however, expect a president to listen to and use the advice of many others, so that he can make an informed and wise decision. A president that constantly whines about how unfair everything is to him personally and how people don’t understand his greatness is embarrassing and unattractive. Hoping for another unlikely “perfect storm” is hardly an election strategy. He could try to salvage his campaign… but he cannot.