Susan B. Glasser, in the New Yorker, challenges Trump: “Mr. President, What Are Your Priorities?” Is Not a Tough Question. Trump is running for reëlection, but, unlike four years ago, he can’t even say why.
Here are Glasser’s opening observations.
It was not supposed to be a trick question, or even all that tricky. For any other candidate, it would have been the softest of softballs, the slowest of pitches. But when the Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt asked Donald Trump the other morning, “Mr. President, what is your second-term agenda? What are your top priorities?,” his inability to answer was one of the most revealing moments of his reëlection campaign so far. “I want to take where we left,” Trump said. “We were better than we were ever,” he added, wistfully conjuring the booming pre-pandemic America of his fantasies, where everybody had a job and the stock market was great. Facing uncontrolled death from the coronavirus and an economy that is cratering because of it, Trump is desperate for a do-over. Other than that, he had pretty much nothing to say about why he should be elected to a second term, although he took more than three hundred words to say it. The bottom line seemed to be that Trump is promising four more years of “jobs” and of stopping U.S. allies, especially Germany, from “ripping us off.” And that’s it.
This painful exchange, which even the Fox hosts eventually cut off, after a few cringe-inducing minutes, was little noted among the many whoppers, distortions, and outrages offered up by Trump this week. It wasn’t even the big news out of that particular Fox interview, the coverage of which rightfully focussed on the President’s absurd claims that the coronavirus is just “going away” and that schools should reopen because children are “almost immune” to covid–19. Throughout the week, Trump’s near-delusional state about the pandemic has been on awkward display, most notably in his instant classic of an interview with the Axios journalist Jonathan Swan, whose simple but skeptical queries about the virus revealed a President unable to comprehend basic facts about the public-health crisis or devise a national plan for combatting it. “It is what it is,” Trump told Swan, when asked about the large, and growing, American death toll—a line that may well go down as one of his most chillingly callous.
But Trump’s struggle to answer such an important and straightforward question about what he would do in a second term should not be overlooked, because it goes to the heart of why his campaign—and the country that he nominally governs—is in such trouble. As an incumbent, Trump is certainly in a bind: he can hardly campaign on his record, when the United States is in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and close to a hundred and sixty thousand Americans are dead of the coronavirus. There’s only so much blame that Trump can deflect; this is a catastrophe that happened on his watch, and—no matter how many times he calls it the “China virus” or warns Americans that Joe Biden will turn the country into a godless hellscape—he knows it.
Trump’s vapid answer is more than a reflection of a political-messaging dilemma—it’s a sign of decline, both in terms of the President’s ability to respond cogently to a simple query and as a warning for American democracy, given that such a large segment of the electorate apparently finds it acceptable to support a leader whose only campaign selling point is himself. Is Trump’s inability to come up with something to say about the next four years a reflection of the fact that even he thinks he is going to lose? Perhaps, but it’s also a measure of how far Trump has descended into full “l’état, c’est moi”-ism. Running for reëlection without offering even a hint of a program is a sure indicator of at least aspirational authoritarianism.
Susan B. Glasser, a staff writer, was the founding editor of Politico Magazine. In September, she will publish, with Peter Baker, “The Man Who Ran Washington.”
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