Joe Biden has spent much of 2020 in his basement. Constrained by COVID-19, and to some extent by age, he has traveled less than any major-party presidential nominee in memory. But Biden has a powerful surrogate: a man who has flown relentlessly across the country, reminding voters at every stop why they must get rid of President Donald Trump.
That man is Donald Trump.
I’ve been watching and listening to Trump’s rallies for months. They’re a study in self-destruction. One rule of politics, for instance, is not to raise topics that help your opponent. But Trump can’t let go of grievances, so he keeps bringing up his impeachment and the investigation of his ties to Russia. Often, he complains about an ad (based on an Atlantic article) that alleges he called military veterans “suckers” and “losers.” Every time he brings it up, that’s more exposure for the allegation. At one rally, Trump called attention to a New York Times story on how little he has paid in taxes. At another, he talked about his reputation for stiffing contractors.
Trump’s worst issue is the pandemic. Instead of avoiding it, which would be hard enough, he tries to lie his way through it. And the lies he chooses are the most foolish. Every day, as infections, test positivity, and hospitalizations rise, he insists that we’re “rounding the turn” and that the pandemic is “ending without the vaccine.” He looks impervious, because he is. And when Trump blames the media for hyping “COVID, COVID, COVID,” he underscores his disinterest in the suffering of Americans.
A sensible candidate would try to unite his party. Instead, Trump attacks fellow Republicans. He derides “Little Ben Sasse,” the senator from Nebraska, and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, who, according to Trump, has “half a brain” and “couldn’t get elected dog catcher.” Trump calls former Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake “stupid people.” He describes his former defense secretary, James Mattis, as “the most highly overrated general I’ve ever met.” He stews about the Lincoln Project and other “sicko RINOs.” He bashes Fox News for publishing polls he doesn’t like. He even brags that his crowds are bigger than former President Ronald Reagan’s.
Some of Trump’s gripes are stale and petty. He fumes at “Crooked Hillary” and Evan McMullin, a Republican who ran against him in 2016. But Trump also picks fights that are new, big, and colossally stupid. He attacks (and has threatened to fire) Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who’s far more trusted on COVID-19 than Trump is. He also scorns “the scientists” as a whole, and he accuses doctors of inflating the COVID death count for money. Impugning the honor of health care workers during a pandemic is as nutty as impugning the honor of American troops during a war.
Trump doesn’t just pick fights. He issues threats. He incites physical assaults on his opponents (“Let’s take care of those sons of bitches”) and congratulates supporters who nearly drove a Biden campaign vehicle off the road. He demands prosecution or jail for Biden, former President Barack Obama, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and former Homeland Security chief of staff Miles Taylor, who criticized Trump in a book. “Lock up the Bidens!” the president told a crowd in Georgia. “Lock up Hillary! Lock ’em up!” Trump stoked the same chant against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, even after she was targeted in a kidnapping plot. He threatened to withhold aid from Pennsylvania because its governor, Tom Wolf, irked him. The president also likes to joke that he’ll stay in office for 12 or 16 years. He thinks he’s triggering the libs. What he’s really doing is scaring away more voters.
Trump’s meanness and belligerence turn off moderates. But he can’t stop himself. He hurls insults at Biden (“a dummy and a half”), Obama (“Hussein”), and Rep. Adam Schiff (“psycho”). He belittles every woman he dislikes: Whitmer (“vicious”), Sen. Kamala Harris (“pathetic”), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (“Pocahontas”), NBC’s Savannah Guthrie (“crazed”), and CBS’s Lesley Stahl (“rude” and “hostile”). At a rally in Arizona, Trump summoned Republican Sen. Martha McSally to the stage by calling her like a dog.
A competent candidate chooses a clear message and sticks to it. Trump, on the other hand, twists himself in knots by accusing his opponent of everything. One minute, he says Biden’s 1994 crime bill put too many Black men in jail; the next, he complains that Biden “wants to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing.” He calls Biden sleepy and boring, then warns that “violent mobs of Biden supporters” will overrun cities. He accuses Biden of serving communists and the establishment simultaneously. On Sunday, at a rally in Iowa, Trump labeled Biden the candidate of “flag burners, Marxists, lobbyists, and special interests.”
While pretending to represent working people, Trump flaunts his snobbery. He scorns Ocasio-Cortez as “a poor student” (“Did she go to college?”) and boasts that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is “Harvard and Yale.” The president brags that he could use his wealth, power, and connections to crush Biden. “You know all the money he raises? I could raise much more,” Trump told a crowd in New Hampshire. “I could sit for one day in the White House and call up every guy on Wall Street, the heads of every firm. … I would set every record in the book.” At a rally in Georgia, Trump preened, “I know these guys. I could call them all. ‘Hey, do me a favor, Irving. Send me $5 million.’ ”
Trump has sunk so far into the Fox News bubble, and into his own vanity, that he no longer understands how to speak to the rest of America. He fills his speeches with arcane detours and self-flattery. He lists all the people who have done him wrong. He tells long stories about being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He trots out Nigel Farage, a British nationalist crackpot most Americans have never heard of. He talks about “Tucker,” “Sean,” “Laura,” “Jeanine,” and “AOC plus three,” not bothering to say their full names or explain who they are.
Ultimately, he retreats to his happy place: reliving, in his mind, election night 2016. He recalls how TV networks declared him the winner in one state after another. He recounts with delight the pain of news anchors who, in his retelling, wept on air. “We had so much fun, the tears that were flowing,” Trump crowed at rally in Wisconsin on Oct. 17. “Remember the tears?” And that’s what his presidency has been about, he explains: lording power over everyone who didn’t support him. “I’m here, and they’re not,” he declares triumphantly.
It’s an odd way to run for reelection. First you get elected while losing the popular vote. Then you attack your allies, antagonize many of your voters, disgust everyone else, and dare the majority to vote you out. “I’m running against the worst candidate in the history of presidential politics,” says Trump. And he’s right, because the man he’s running against is himself.