By Bruce Shlain
Donald Trump getting infected with COVID-19 turned out to be the big October Surprise of the 2020 election. He handled it with his inimitable personal touch. When he came down with the virus and had to be medevacced on October 3 by helicopter to Walter Reed Medical Center, he had the golden opportunity to seize the lifeline and change his tune. After nearly eight months of dismissing the virus as no worse than the flu and something that would disappear “like a miracle,” he would pivot to show empathy for the pain felt by ordinary Americans : the 220,000 dead, the millions of jobs lost, the 100,000 businesses closed, many for good.
But for a president who desired only to project strength and dominance, he shied away from any admission that he was flesh and blood, and thereby risk revealing himelf as a sick and vulnerable old man. Instead, he engineered a photo-op of a triumphant return to the White House two days later. He climbed the stairs outside and stood on the Truman Balcony, now laboring to breathe, defiantly removed his mask, stuffed it in his pocket and saluted. It was no accident that he evoked dictatorial iconography from the likes of Evita Peron and Benito Mussolini, presenting himself as the incarnation of dictators past, our very own Cheeto Benito, Benito Trumpolini, or Mango Mussolini. He shot a short video declaring that his illness was a gift from God, he got infected to show us all that it was nothing to be afraid of, you can’t let it dominate your life, we have a cure, we’ve made the final turn on the virus. The intended takeaway was that the President had dominated the China Virus, he had kicked its ass!
In the first debate between Trump and Biden less than a week earlier, the president had gone on the attack like a wolverine on speed, relentlessly interrupting with total disregard for the rules of the debate or decorum in general, and it had quickly devolved into total chaos. Biden was stunned, and tried to directly address the home audience instead of his opponent, as the candidates talked over each other. Trump, meanwhile, declined to disavow white supremacyor advise his supporters to accept the election results peacefully, and denigrated Biden for wearing a mask. As a showcase for American democracy, it was a national disgrace and an international embarrassment on a grand scale, or just another day in the 2020 presidential campaign.
A flustered Dana Bash at CNN could only describe it on-air as a “total shitshow,” and for the trailing and flailing Trump, it was a total belly flop into an empty swimming pool. We can dispel the notion that Trump, who took the 2016 election with the electoral college equivalent of pulling an inside straight, was somehow playing a game of three-dimensional political chess based on gut instinct. He managed to severely alienate every group that he needed to persuade, losing support among women, seniors, veterans and even non-college-educated whites. In the wake of the debate, a race that had been stable for months in Biden’s favor now tipped more heavily to the Democrats and endangered Republican control of the Senate.
Trump blew off the second debate on October 15, when the Debate Commission planned to make it a virtual event. Biden and Trump ended up holding dueling town halls aired at the same time. Trump told Savannah Guthrie at the ABC Town Hall that 85% of people who wear masks get sick, and other absolute gibberish that would endanger even more lives. Trump would subsequently refer to the Administration’s most experienced epidemiologists as “Fauci and the other idiots.” Instead, he listened to Dr. Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist with no experience in virology or public health, who said wearing masks has no benefit, and who advocates the “herd immunity” approach, which leads to mass death. The president has become not only a national security threat, but a full-on, balls-out menace to public health.
The drugs Trump had taken often engender feelings of grandiosity and manic behavior, especially the steroid dexamethasone. It apparently made him feel like he could out-wrestle a grown bear. Even the coronavirus itself can bring on acute brain fog and the inability to see things clearly or rationally. Was Trump under the influence of these medical “cocktails," including remdesevir and experimental monoclonal antibodies, which nobody had ever taken in concert? If Trump was acting crazy, demented, like a Mad King, as if he were on drugs, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asserted, how could she really tell? How could anybody tell? It was all so Trumpian, and the rambling and wild statements, the denial of reality, and the slurring of words, seemed to have accelerated. Another funny circumstance, until you realize that the tangerine-colored man in the baggy suits with the ties down to his groin has control of 6,000 nuclear warheads.
And so Trump went back on the trail, even though he might well have still been infected and contagious and risking more super-spreader events for his followers. Nobody knew if he had tested negative yet for the virus, but he was more than willing to sacrifice his supporters. Meanwhile, he retweeted the right-wing conspiracy theory that Bin Laden’s death was faked, beat up on his Attorney General for not indicting Obama and Biden for “spying on his campaign,” warned that the Democrats would turn the U.S.into a “large-scale Venezuela,” referred to Kamala Harris as a “monster,” incited violence against the Governor of Michigan, and on and on. Former Obama advisor David Axelrod wondered if Trump had “turned his own political suicide into a surreal reality show.”
Trump still only trails by 5 or 6 points in several key battleground states such as Pennsylvania, only a few points outside the margin of error. There are an estimated 25 percent of people who come to his rallies who did not vote in 2016, and Republican voter registration is up, while early Democratic voting is huge. If the pandemic had not hit, it appears that Trump might well have won a second term; his administration had to badly bungle the crisis for him to lose. Trump insisted that it could have been much worse, two million could have died without his decisive leadership. But Trump’s cavalier handling of a monumental crisis that few presidents ever have had to face may well have come with a personal price tag: becoming infected with COVID-19 and losing the election. Let us suppose, after the court battles and expected skirmishes in the streets, that he does lose, and is forced from office. If the circus leaves town after one term, just what kind of legacy would Trump leave behind?
Distrust of our basic institutions was already running rampant, and Trump pumped it up to the wildest extreme. He started with the free press, as all wannabe dictators do. The media was “the enemy of the people,” as Vladimir Lenin once said, and Trump just kept repeating “fake news.” Every bad story about the Trump Organization being a crime syndicate, or his family being a collection of influence-peddling grifters, or his cabinet members drowning in corruption, it was all fake news. And he just keep repeating it. It matters not if the lie is a whopper; just keep washing those brains out there. It worked for Joseph Goebbels and it works now.
The news media, like the courts, has generally proven to be resilient in the face of the attacks and relentless in its reporting. The Washington Post and The New York Times broke stories right and left, because this was the leakiest White House of all time. The cable news shows saw their ratings skyrocket, and for all the furrowing of knitted brows, they still basically played into Trump’s short-fingered hands, since he always led the coverage, sucking all the oxygen out of the room. The news cycle moves fast in the digital age, and print and cable TV news outlets all “spotlight” coverage on the news of the day, which was usually another Trump outrage, some shocking controversy. Trump saw each day as a television show, where there are heroes and villains, and he must vanquish his opponents and emerge victorious. It exhausts everyone but him, because he is built that way as a malignant narcissist, and could go on forever rinsing and repeating, leveling his enemies with insults, lies and innuendo. Until recently, the cable news networks normalized his behavior, insofar as he was covered more as a Twitter-happy show-off rather than an autocrat who was slowly dismantling American democracy piece by piece.
Even the most thoroughly vetted investigations of the Trump administration, the Mueller Report, did not move large segments of the country. Trump developed a reputation of being the Teflon Don, who could slough off scandals that would end the careers of normal politicians. We live in an atmosphere so polarized that nothing really matters, not when 40 percent of the country will believe almost anything, and 20 percent really don’t know what or whom to believe. Among those 40 percent is the hardcore Trump Base. They make up their own realities, and get a lot of their news right from the horse’s mouth (pick any orifice) --the man in the Oval. Take the QAnon followers. They believe that Democratic elites are cannibalistic pedophiles, the real bloodsucking “Deep State,” and that Trump was sent as a savior to expose them. Trump will not and cannot call them out for believing in craptastic and mega-paranoid fantasies, because these people are his future customers, whether as voters or viewers or people that will buy whatever snake oil he can push on them.
The genie is out of the bottle, disinformation spreads on all the social-media platforms, with help from Russian and Chinese troll farms, and as the experts will tell you, debunking conspiracy theories does not halt their growth. Twitter and Facebook recently restricted a few false posts about public health and Hunter Biden’s laptop that came from Trump, but of course that is only a drop in the bucket. The only recourse is educating the public about distinguishing fact from fancy, and good luck with that one. It is deadly serious in the sense that if no agreed-upon objective reality exists, and politicians are free to make up their own “alternative facts,” no democracy can exist for very long. The American Experiment in government may not be down and out, but is perhaps on the ropes.
The Trump Administration was not the first to issue a blizzard of lies in defense of its policies, as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld served two terms on the wings of such mendacity, but Trump was the one who altered the political landscape by proving there was no limit. Fact-checkers tend to lose count after 20,000 lies. He used the bully pulpit of the presidency to blanket the country in a smog of twittering untruths. And all it took was a supremely neurotic persistence, lack of any moral grounding whatsoever, and of course, total shamelessness.
THE LAWLESS PRESIDENT AND THE VICHY REPUBLICANS
David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, became a never-Trumper, and now puts atop his Twitter page, “No one will ever admit that they supported this.” It still is amazing to look back and see how easily the GOP was hijacked and replaced with Trumpism. Republican members of Congress were not so much afraid of Trump per se, but paralyzed by his base support, in that one mean tweet could end them politically. It was a classic Faustian deal with the Devil: put up with a measure of awfulness and get to pass things like the massive tax cut for corporations and the rich. But the GOP bought the ticket, and took the whole ride. The groveling became routine, passing by the second year into the spectacle of Profiles in Chickenshit commonly seen in the halls of Congress. Senators scurried for the elevators, throwing “I don’t read the President’s tweets” or “no comment” over their shoulders. After the endless rationalizing came the complete capitulation, the Bootlicker Phase, for nearly the entire Republican Senate, minus Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski.
On issue after issue – the deficit, national security, impeachment, exploitation of racial divisions, corruption, oversight, the assault on the rule of law, the weaponization and politicization of the Justice Department and intelligence agencies, as well as the Centers for Disease Control, the Muslim ban, the denigration of Gold Star families, and families separated at the border with kids put in cages, helping the Saudis cover up the murder of an American journalist, or Trump calling fallen soldiers “suckers and losers”--Senate Republicans failed miserably to put country over party.
The Constitution depends so much on norms rather than laws. So much of our democracy is held up by a kind of gentleman’s agreement; it’s in the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” but they’re not evident to everybody. It does not say in the Constitution, for instance, that a president cannot pardon himself, so Trump may test it, rather than just step down and let the Vice-President pardon him. If someone like Trump decides to override the norms at every turn, who could stop him? He would just fire the Inspector General looking into it and replace him or her with another loyalist stooge. The President was impeached for trying to get Ukraine to say they were investigating Biden, and he skated on that just like he skated on the Mueller Report, by calling it a “hoax.” Trump was an Early Warning Signal for U.S. democracy, and thankfully, was fairly incompetent. What if some demagogue gained the presidency who did not spend so much “Executive Time,” as they like to call it in the West Wing, just watching coverage of himself on cable news, and who was smoother in working the levers of power?
Some Republicans up for reelection have cut down the lifeboats and are only now dissociating themselves from Trump, but they are way late with their conversion. When Trump is gone, his base remains, and how the Republicans remake their party and maintain the support of these people is an open and thorny question that none of the GOP really wants to face. Back when the Republicans lost with Mitt Romney as the candidate in 2012, they wrote a report known as “The Autopsy,” preparing a circular firing squad to remake their party so that they could appeal to young people and minorities in a nation of changing demographics. They face a much deeper soul-searching now.
And Republicans may have to remake themselves with Trump screaming from the sidelines. It is difficult to imagine someone who craves attention so desperately seeking asylum in Saudi Arabia or Moscow to escape his numerous legal difficulties. He may buy a media company and start TRUMP-TV, and try to monetize his cult following. A reality show about an ex-president? All we really know is it might be awhile before the Republican Party recovers from sacrificing so many core American values at the altar of Trumpism. It is far from a sure thing that they will even try.
‘WHO’S LAUGHING NOW?’ TRUMP ON THE WORLD STAGE
Trump insisted that the rest of the world was laughing at us as they took advantage of the U.S., and he promised that the rest of the world will no longer laugh at us. But laugh they did, whether it was Trudeau and Macron giggling about the American President’s behavior at a G7 summit, or when the British flew the Baby Trump-in-a-Diaper blimp above Trafalgar Square whenever he visited, or even the audience at the United Nations that laughed at his self-stroking blather.
He cozied up to dictators like Duterte, Erdogan, Kim Jong-un, and Putin, while trashing our allies and threatening to pull out of NATO. When Secretary of Defense James Mattis tried to explain to Trump that the NATO alliance was the most successful pact in history, and had kept the world safe from nuclear war for 75 years, Trump failed to understand. That ignorance prompted his first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to sum up the President’s foreign policy acumen with the succinct, “What a fucking moron.”
Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran and the Paris Climate Agreement, likely because they were Obama’s signature diplomatic accomplishments. “America First” meant America Alone. Instead of using the united front of our allies in confronting China, Trump went toe-to-toe with President Xi in a game of ‘whose tariffs are bigger?’ It hit American farmers so hard that even after billions in subsidies, many longtime family farms closed down. His administration negotiated the USMC to replace the terrible, no-good, unfair NAFTA, although some economists pointed out that the terrific, fantastic and beautiful new deal was pretty much like NAFTA. Jared Kushner helped negotiate a peace agreement in the Middle East, but conveniently left out the Palestinians. And Trump set in motion the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) because they supposedly favored China –an inconceivable move in the midst of a global pandemic.
Trump tried a new tack with North Korea, exchanging “love letters” in a prolonged bromance with Kim Jong-un, while Kim refined his ICBM program. Kim apparently played 45 like a .45, around and around, getting the international boost of photos with an American president, without making any real concessions. Trump pulled the plug on the Kurds, who had assisted U.S. forces in Syria, and allowed the Turks to slaughter them at the border, based on a phone call with Erdogan. Administration security officials were aghast, once again. Did the two Trump hotels in Istanbul have anything to do with it? It was once unimaginable that more people around the world trusted President Xi of China or Vladimir Putin than the American president, but that also came to pass (even though it was really close).
All roads, however, led to Russia. Trump infamously sided with Putin at Helsinki and took his word over the advice of American intelligence agencies about interference in the 2016 election, and refused to lift a finger to combat future interference. Even mentioning Russian influence in his election caused him to fly into a rage. When reports circulated that bounties were placed on the heads of American soldiers in Afghanistan by Russian intelligence, Trump declined to even bring it up with Putin, and still recommended that the Russian dictator be invited back into the G7. When all is said and done, we may find out that the $400 million in debt revealed on his tax returns is owed to Russian oligarchs through Deutsche Bank. By then it will be a moot point whether Trump was a witting agent or “useful idiot” for the Russians. For decades the Soviet Union tried to discredit and undermine the United States from within, and their two cudgels were always (1) that the U.S. is a racist country and has no business taking the moral high ground on humanitarian issues around the world and (2) that the U.S. does not have free and fair elections. Could any president advance these Russian talking points with more vigor than Donald Trump has?
Trump’s legacy, in terms of historical impact, will probably be in the courts, on his way to his third conservative justice on the Supreme Court and countless other federal judges at the district and appellate levels with lifetime appointments. The unexpected death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg opened the door to forcing through a nominee who would severely tip the balance of the Supreme Court to the right for at least a generation. Trump did every last thing he could to extend presidential power to the imperial level. His effect on debasing what passes for political discourse may not be everlasting, but it is definitely going to leave a long-lasting mark.
Black Lives Matter: Trump would not say the names of the victims of unaccountable police violence, except for George Floyd's
As the most divisive of presidents, Trump has given credence to some of the worst impulses in the American grain, namely racism and xenophobia, stoking fires by insisting civilization itself is at risk and demonizing his political opponents to the degree that even violent responses are justified, amid chants of “Lock ‘em up.” Historians and presidential scholars may give Trump the lowest of marks. Remember, however, that George Bush was at 20 percent approval when he left office, having invaded Iraq without a plan, destabilized the Middle East; presided over a massive tanking of the economy; and let New Orleans drown. Of course, the best thing to ever happen to Bush was Donald J. Trump, and Bush is now seen by comparison as a genial old man who paints portraits of veterans and is chummy with Michelle Obama.
It is hard to believe there is enough whitewash in the world to clean up Trump’s image, but he, unlike other failed presidents, has his own cult. The polarizing presidency of Trump will remain the ultimate political Rorchach test: anyone can see in it whatever they want, revealing how they feel about race, gender, democracy, truth, justice and the American way. Triump’s supporters will swear that he can walk on water, while his detractors will continue to point out that he cannot even swim. The late Senator John McCain’s campaign manager and king of the Never-Trumpers, Steve Schmidt, summed up the Trump years on MSNBC:
"It's just astonishing that this man is president of the United States. […]He's brought death, suffering, and economic collapse on truly an epic scale. And let's be clear. This isn't happening in every country around the world. This place. Our place. Our home. Our country. The United States. We are the epicenter. We are the place where you're the most likely to die from this disease. We're the ones with the most shattered economy. And we are because of the fool that sits in the Oval Office behind the Resolute Desk."
Joe Biden is running on the idea that he is not Trump, that his decency and empathy, as Doris Kearns Goodwin said, are the most important traits for a leader. The leaders we elect speak volumes about ourselves and the culture we inhabit, and we seem to be cycling through wildly different male role models, as the types of men we admire as an electorate seem to ascend and decline like fluctuations of the stock market. George Bush wore a cowboy hat, cleared brush on his ranch, and was full of swagger. Barack Obama was articulate and cerebral, reasonable, well-mannered and self-deprecating, in touch with his emotions--a symbol of the progressive, feminist man, who was not effeminate but definitely had a feminine side. Above all, 44 was steady and consistent, perhaps patient to a fault, and yet “No Drama Obama” would be replaced by a blustery, egomaniacal reality-TV star. More than eight million people who voted for Obama in 2012 would vote for Trump – people who cannot be dismissed as mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging, Bible-thumping, racist, misogynist, opioid-addicted, gun-toting, science-denying, wife-beating “deplorables.” Trump’s moment had simply arrived, with the masses feeling left behind and holding grudges, more than ready to embrace Trump’s particular brand of intolerance, hatred and anti-intellectualism.
We entered the height of the 2016 campaign at a time when we were struggling as a people to forge a healthier sexual dynamic between men and women in the workplace and elsewhere, and to reconsider how men should behave and how women should be treated. Donald Trump was the personification of toxic masculinity for this bizarre moment in gender politics: a man accused of serial assault of nearly two dozen women. The Women’s March drew nearly an estimated seven million people worldwide, nearly a half million in Washington, D.C,, on January 21, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration. Would the Women’s March have happened if Hillary Clinton were president? Trump’s victory may have been in part the embodiment of a backlash against feminism that many recognized in the early ‘90s, but it also heralded a reckoning over male sexual misconduct.
Trump will remain an iconic figure in the history of manhood. Is it too idealistic to think, when all is said and done, that one of Trump’s legacies will be that his ascension represented the last gasp of the white male patriarchy in a world gone wrong?For that matter, would the Black Lives Matter protests have gathered such widespread support among whites if not for Trump’s insistence that systemic racism does not exist (although he admitted to Bob Woodward that it probably does) and his refusal to even say the names of the victims of unaccountable state violence, with the exception of George Floyd?
The optimistic and ironic long view of the Trump presidency is that it may serve as a lasting energizing tonic, evidenced by the election of a record number of women to Congress in the 2018 midterms,and increased civic involvement among minorities and Millennials. Perhaps his Neanderthal attitudes on sex, science and race will continue to galvanize a counterforce of feminist and climate-change activists, those fighting for racial justice, and political factions of all stripes hoping for a more egalitarian society. Of course, long-entrenched conglomerations of power and plenty of dark money will be deployed to protect more traditional values. The 2020 presidential election has been presented as a battle for our identities, for the soul of the nation, and over whether our better angels will prevail. Even if he loses, Trump will garner close to sixty million votes. It will ultimately be left to Millennials and Generation Z to rise to these challenges and determine the true legacy of the Trump presidency.
Bruce Shlain is the co-author with Martin A. Lee of Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD, and the 60’s Rebellion, and the author of Oddballs: Baseball’s Greatest Pranksters, Flakes, Hot Dogs, and Hotheads, and Baseball Inside Out. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and other publications. Writer and producer for Major League Baseball, “Good Morning America,” editor of a Manhattan weekly, senior copywriter for BBDO. Surviving the pandemic and the Trump years in Farmington Hills, Michigan, at work on a memoir A Changed Man.