Trump is staggering. He’s plunging in the polls, and his behavior has become erratic and unhinged. I don’t mean he’s being crude, infantile and wrapped in a world of fantasy—he’s always like that. Rather, I see him as suddenly incoherent, fumbling with threats and catchphrases as if he were locked out of his house at night, frantically trying one key after another to see if any will work.
Here’s my theory: throughout his career, Trump has been resolutely self-defining. He selects his issues, positions and attributes (clever deal-maker, hardass boss, financial/sexual/political winner, tough guy warrior for patriarchal values, underdog rebel against the Establishment) to construct a persona of his own choice. He takes the initiative.
2016 was a great year for him. While much was wrong with America, none of it was urgent in a screaming you-can’t-look-away-from-this sort of way. There was plenty of political space for Trump to define what he thought the country should be focused on and why he would be the one to fix it. The media provided invaluable service, making a big deal of every tweet, boastful claim or rally-fueled hyperbole. Through them, Trump told us what the election was about: the invasion of dangerous immigrants pouring through our undefended borders, the humiliation of the America by China, and the haughty, corrupt elitism of Democratic politicians. Even by disputing his take on these things, the media reinforced the notion that these were the main issues facing the country.
What has collapsed for Trump, finally in 2020, is not just the economy, the health of the population or the racial order, but his ability to determine what the issues are: he has lost control of the narrative. This is not because the Democrats have beat him at his own game. On the contrary, they are as clueless about these things as they’ve always been. His problem is that we are facing real crises that demand our attention whether we want them to or not. Trump has almost no influence over what politics are about in an election year; the pandemic, the economy and the revulsion against racism and police violence define the political moment on their own. This is why he seems to be flailing: his entire career has been based on his projection of his needs onto the world, and he has hardly any capacity to respond to the demands of others.
Bad news for Trump: we don’t know how long the current challenge to the racial order will last, but the pandemic and the economic crisis will be with us well beyond November. They will call the shots. Trump can blather about some other fantasy issue being the real problem, but few will listen.