“I can’t believe I have to say this, but please don’t drink bleach” — Joe Biden
Recently, I wrote about the irony that Donald Trump, who was elected as a disruption agent, would be evaluated for a second term on his ability to handle a once-in-a-century crisis with competence and skill. Since then, he has chosen to put his ineptitude on regular display by holding rambling daily press conferences where he demonstrates that he has no plan for addressing the crisis and no compassion for its victims. Deprived of his rallies and the opportunity to play golf, these daily events provide Trump a cathartic opportunity to vent about a situation that has upended his political plans and threatens to consume his re-election prospects.
We may have reached Peak Trump last Thursday, with his now infamous speculation about whether disinfectants that work so well to kill the virus on surfaces could be just as effective internally. “I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute,” Trump mused from the presidential podium. “And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning?”
Well — no. There isn’t. Disinfectants destroy organic matter — you know, the stuff we’re made of. Most adults have seen enough Clorox warning labels to know this and have good reason to be appalled that the person with the largest megaphone on earth would use it to suggest something so dangerously ill informed. More distressing still were those who are so inclined to believe Trump that they took his idea seriously, prompting a spike in calls to poison control centers across the country. Trump tried deflecting responsibility to the press by stating afterwards that his comment was taken out of context and clearly meant to be sarcastic, but this only worked to show that he doesn’t understand what sarcastic means (or, as CNN noted, that he was lying). In any event, the damage had been done. Trump walked away from his Friday briefing without taking any questions. Saturday’s briefing was canceled entirely.
The disinfectant comment cut through the media clutter and stands as an exemplar of why this could be an inflection point in the 2020 election. If people want competence to lead them through a crisis, then any clear demonstration of incompetence that crystallizes public opinion is as much a political hazard as bleach is a biohazard. The danger for Trump is that it will be his killer rabbit moment, analogous to when Jimmy Carter — another president who struggled with questions about his leadership — let slip that a crazed bunny had chased his rowboat while he was fishing in Plains, Georgia (seriously – Google it). The incident became a metaphor for a hapless administration that was unable to get ahead of rapidly changing national events, and Carter was unable to get away from it as political circumstances turned gloomy during his final year in office.
Despite the staying power of Trump’s base, his political risks are real. His standing in key states is tenuous. Numerous recent polls show Joe Biden with an edge in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida and North Carolina. There are indications of erosion among older voters essential to a Trump victory, where his support has always been strongest. And in the absence of strategic global leadership the worst of the pandemic and the accompanying economic fallout is still ahead. There are no victory laps in sight.
Bluster and freelancing have not helped Donald Trump get ahead of the crisis, and now the crisis is threatening to consume him. He risks being Carterized by what will be remembered in popular culture as the bleach drinking comment. His defenders may rightly point out that’s not what he said, but Carter never called the rabbit a killer — just like Sarah Palin never said she could see Russia from her house (Tina Fey did). It’s the parody we remember when it searingly articulates widespread doubts about something meaningful and serious. If Jimmy Carter can be threatened by a tiny animal usually associated with petting zoos and Easter celebrations, how can he stand up to Ayatollah Khomeini? Only a child or a simpleton would think it’s a good idea to ingest disinfectants, and you don’t want either leading you through a pandemic.