Donald Trump, Wartime President
I very much wish that Peter Wehner’s recent claim, made in The Atlantic, that “the Trump presidency is over” were true: not only do I disagree with most of the president’s policies, but I also think that much of the strongest criticism of him has come from Wehner and others on the “never Trump” right. But while I’m not arguing that the claim is false – Trump may very well lose to Joe Biden in November – I think not only that it is far too early to make such a pronouncement, but that, like so much of what is written about Trump, it rests on shaky foundations. Wehner is not wrong to argue that the Trump administration totally botched what should have been the early stages of intense preparation for the outbreak of the virus; even the president’s staunchest supporters don’t so much argue this point as try to dodge it. His errors lie elsewhere, such as when he writes: “It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain.” To say this is yet again to posit Trump voters as people who have been fooled by the president, and who, the wool having been removed from their eyes, might now shift their support to another, more normal, politician. But Trump’s supporters have shown time and again that they do not subscribe to a traditional vision of politics, as a level playing field on which candidates compete fairly to see who will win and lose; on the contrary, they believe that the entire game is fixed, and that until Trump’s arrival, power had simply passed back and forth from one section of the elite to another, all within a realm that was, for them, totally inaccessible. Their support of Trump is based on the idea not that he played the game of these elites and won, but rather that he totally overturned this game in order to play a new one based on his own rules. They view him, in other words, not through a lens of politics but rather one of war, which is why his attempt, over the last few days, to cast himself as a wartime president has been so utterly brilliant: within this schema, the virus, far from the novel phenomenon Trump’s critics make it out to be, appears as merely the latest in a long series of attacks on the president – and in a time of war, it is simply unpatriotic not to get behind the leader. The “assault from without” trope even helps Trump in an area in which his critics see him as suddenly vulnerable, that of the economy: if his success in this sphere was already the product, according to the story he so skillfully told, of his having wrested decisions away from a tiny elite, then who better to get the economy back on track, once the attack has been parried, than the president himself? In short, despite what Wehner and other commentators have argued, there’s nothing new about the coronavirus: the strategy of endlessly pointing at the man behind the curtain is futile; the only way for Trump’s opponents to really enact change will be to address his supporters’ conviction that the game is fixed – a conviction about which these supporters, if they are not completely right, are also not exactly wrong.