Donald Trump is a uniquely polarizing figure, but it goes beyond people either loving or hating him. It’s also extremely hard for people to agree on what makes him effective or to predict what will cause him political harm. And this isn’t a problem that has a strict right/left split to it. Consider how the people around him responded to his tweet last week about Martin Gugino, the 75-year-old protester from Buffalo whose assault by the police was captured in a viral video.
Even though Gugino was still in the hospital receiving treatment for head trauma, and despite two Buffalo police officers being arrested, the president suggested that he was a provocateur who may have faked his injuries.
Asked about this, multiple aides told ABC News that they have turned off notifications for Trump’s Twitter account because “What’s the point?”
Yet, another group dismissed everyone’s concern, and went one step further.
However, two other outside advisers to the president instead said it wasn’t the president’s rhetoric that was problematic — adding that’s in part how he won in 2016…
The first group is clearly demoralized. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they’ve given up on Trump winning a second term. They don’t even want to know that the president is “citing a bizarre report by fringe right-wing television network One American News” to libel a political protester. It’s pretty hard to help a campaign if you won’t even look at what it’s doing. Beyond that, they clearly think Trump’s behavior is a problem that is hurting his chances.
But the second group sees this kind of unhinged and morally indefensible act as central to his political success. It’s hard to argue that the Gugino tweet was materially different from countless others he made in 2016 that people thought would sink his campaign.
I’m tempted to say that both things can be true at the same time, but I don’t really believe that. Either Trump’s crazy and dickish behavior is helping or hurting him, and I think it’s now hurting him.
But maybe this isn’t the most productive way of thinking about this question. A better way, I think, is to ask what Trump would have left in his political arsenal if he simply stopped saying half-baked and cruel things every day?
On this score, he can point to a ruined economy that was robust prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, and stock prices that are at historic highs. He can point to a big tax cut for the wealthy and a transformed federal court system that now has a heavy conservative tilt. But he has no forward-looking legislative agenda. He has no foreign policy successes. His appeal is almost entirely wrapped up in his act, or his ability to make a spectacle of himself. If he didn’t tweet on a regular basis, there’d be no reason to pay attention to him. If he didn’t do outrageous things, there’d be no reason for anyone to enjoy the show.
So, Trump’s act may be old and curdled, but it’s the only thing that makes him attractive at all, and if he abandons it in an effort to pick up more support, he’ll only wind up depressing the enthusiasm of his true fans.
In this sense, the advisers who see the Gugino tweet as unproblematic have a point. Yet, the advisers who no longer want to look at Trump’s tweets at all because “What’s the point?”–they have a point too.
Trump is incapable of change and has only one trick. If the trick isn’t good enough to win in 2020, so be it, but he’s going to go down swinging.