Why is Donald Trump struggling to close his deficit in the polls against Joe Biden? One reason is that Trump has done a bad job as president. Another reason is that for five years, he’s been telling everyone outside his base to go to hell. But there’s a third reason, and it’s undercutting his attempts at a comeback: He’s having trouble faking his way through another round of election-year lies.
Here are some of the themes Trump is trying to finesse, and why he’s failing.
1. Unity. At the end of Thursday’s presidential debate, moderator Kristen Welker asked Trump what he would say in a hypothetical 2021 inaugural address “to Americans who did not vote for you.” Trump replied that before the coronavirus arrived, “the other side wanted to get together. They wanted to unify.” That’s a line he often uses on the campaign trail, as though he has been open to bipartisanship all along. But he immediately returned to the attack, warning that a Biden victory would trigger “a depression the likes of which you’ve never seen.”
Trump got elected by pitting red America against blue America, and he can’t stop. In rallies and interviews, he accuses “Democrat governors” of fomenting crime and conspiring to lock down their residents against the virus just to hurt him in the election. He claims to support aid to people who are suffering financially from the pandemic, but he opposes a package passed by the House, calling it a “bailout for badly run Democrat cities and states.” In effect, Trump has ceded the unity message to Biden. “I don’t look at this … the way he does, blue states and red states,” Biden said in the debate. “They’re all the United States.”
2. Responsibility. In March, in a Rose Garden press conference, Trump said of the government’s poor COVID response, “I don’t take responsibility at all.” On Thursday, when Biden pressed him about that abdication, Trump tried to clean it up. “I take full responsibility,” he said. But instead of owning up to failures or shortcomings, he immediately pleaded, “It’s not my fault,” and he passed the buck to governors. When Trump was asked why Americans were still waiting for the aid package, he replied, “Because Nancy Pelosi doesn’t want to approve it.” Trump thinks he’s conveying that everyone else is to blame. What he’s actually conveying is that he’s a blamer.
3. Populism. Trump won in 2016 by claiming to stand for the forgotten man and woman. At rallies, he denounces “wealthy donors, globalists, and special interests.” But he’s the wealthy globalist, and it shows. He gloats about the stock market, even as millions of Americans are out of work, and he seems unaware that most Americans don’t have a 401(k). He can’t stop bragging about his wealth and connections. In Thursday’s debate, he ridiculed Biden for leaving Scranton, Pennsylvania, as a child—Biden’s dad had lost his job—and he boasted that he could vastly outspend Biden if he wanted to. “As president, and as somebody that knows most of those people, I could call the heads of Wall Street, the heads of every company in America. I would blow away every record,” Trump sneered. “I could blow away your records like you wouldn’t believe.”
4. Compassion. Lately, Trump has been trying out a new word at his rallies: heart. It seems to be aimed at the suburban women he keeps talking about. He claims that he’d love to help everyone who wants to immigrate to America—we all “have a heart,” he says—but that we can’t afford it. It’s a sweet-sounding message, but Trump doesn’t believe it, and he has trouble hiding his callousness. In the debate, he was asked about hundreds of undocumented immigrant children who are in U.S. custody because our government, having deliberately separated them from their parents, now can’t find the parents. “They are so well taken care of,” Trump said of the stranded children, proudly. “They’re in facilities that were so clean.”
5. Science. In speeches, Trump reads from a script that calls COVID lockdowns “unscientific.” He accuses Democrats of recklessly scaring people about vaccines. It’s part of a strategy to reposition him as a prudent, levelheaded leader. But that’s not what he is, and he keeps blowing the act by attacking scientists. He snipes at Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, calling him an idiot, a “disaster,” and a Democrat. In his first debate with Biden, Trump quarreled with other government scientists as well. In his second debate, he fabricated a quote from Fauci: “This is no problem. This is going to go away soon.” Trump’s lie was instantly exposed. He can’t win a war of credibility with Fauci, but he insists on fighting it.
6. Courage. Trump poses as a tough guy who takes on powerful interests and foreign leaders. He frames his recent COVID infection as part of that persona, claiming that he braved the virus “as your leader.” But his cowardice shows through. He keeps suggesting that he may have caught the virus from Gold Star families—those whose loved ones served and died in military conflicts—at a White House event on Sept. 27. In Thursday’s debate, instead of apologizing for almost never wearing a mask, Trump tried to explain his infection by saying he “had to meet” with “Gold Star families and military families” that week. He implicitly blamed his needless, pointless risk-taking—which endangered others—on families who had paid the ultimate price to serve their country.
7. Equality. Trump is losing badly to Biden among people of color. So he’s belatedly pretending to care about them. But it’s hard to keep up that pretense when, in every speech and interview, the president rails against “low-income housing projects” invading suburbs. Trump has told white crowds in Florida, Iowa, and Ohio that Cory Booker, a Black senator from New Jersey, is leading this plot. Trump also links it to President Barack Obama—whose middle name, “Hussein,” Trump always inserts with glee—and to Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, whose first name Trump deliberately mispronounces.
8. Integrity. Trump’s last-ditch gambit is to smear Biden as a corrupt politician who used his office to protect his son’s financial interests. It’s a lie, but it might help Trump, if he can get the media to focus on it. Instead, in rallies and debates, he continues to rage about his impeachment and the investigation into Russia’s ties to his 2016 campaign. “I was put through a phony witch hunt,” he fumed in Thursday’s debate. He baselessly denounced “FBI agents,” former special counsel Robert Mueller, and others who “spied on my campaign.” Every time Trump brings up these grievances, he reminds voters of his own alleged corruption, not Biden’s.
Theoretically, Trump could still win the election. There’s good reason, however, to believe he won’t. He’s peddling lies and pretending, unsuccessfully, to be someone he never was. In 2016, he got away with it. But it’s hard to pull off the same con twice.