Reality collided with the reality show president in June, and reality won. Donald Trump is in trouble. His campaign is in trouble. That means the entire Republican Party is in trouble. And it will not be easy to turn around.
Events of the past weeks have stripped away Trump’s illusion of strength, and strength is his entire brand. He is the self-proclaimed law and order president, a would-be strongman who urged governors to use troops to “dominate the streets” against peacefully assembled demonstrators. It was only a month ago that Trump had national guard troops attack peaceful protesters with tear gas in a brutal show of force designed to clear the way for a photo op on a street in front of the White House. Just one month since Trump would have had the country believe he was an imposing force dominating our politics in an election year, a threatening character shaping events in his image. Trump’s bluster has always been empty, of course, the phony toughness of a bully. But he has never been called on it — until now.
Just look at what’s happened to the bully since that ill-fated display at St. John’s Church. For the first time in his life, the phoniness has been unmasked. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff publicly apologized for his role in the event and Trump was sternly rebuked for his actions by his former Defense Secretary James Mattis — who called Trump a threat to American democracy — as well as by a host of senior military leaders. It would be the start of a slow-motion turning point. Trump lost control of events in the month of June and in the process lost control of his own narrative. Rather than a figure to be feared, Donald Trump enters the summer looking like a crumpled loser.
The horrific images coming out of Lafayette Park magnified his weaknesses. Large majorities disapprove of Trump’s handling of the protests, which have turned into one of the defining issues of our time. But Trump was in trouble well before the nation erupted in response to the killing of George Floyd. The seeds of Trump’s downfall were planted months earlier when he abdicated leadership of the pandemic and decided to turn the worst public health crisis in a century into a battle of cultures. The self-inflicted damage from this decision was obscured for a few weeks as COVID-19 took a hiatus from saturation news coverage while the daily drama of demonstrations against systemic racism proved more newsworthy than declining case rates. It returned to the headlines with a vengeance over the past week as the effects of reopening the economy too early became disturbingly apparent across the South and Southwest. With renewed coverage came a renewed focus on how inept the administration’s response has been.
The most profound blow to Trump’s pretend dominance took place on June 20, when an overly-hyped Trump mega-rally in MAGA-friendly Tulsa produced a paltry 6200 attendees in a 19,000 seat venue. Having trumpeted a seven-figure response for tickets, the Trump campaign had to suffer through live images of an overflow stage being dismantled before the main event started and a sea of empty blue seats that you could be forgiven for thinking anticipated the electoral map on November 3. The poor turnout could have been the result of Gen-Z teens embarrassing the campaign by gobbling up tickets they never planned to use, or a general lack of enthusiasm among the faithful, or — more ominously — rejection by Trump supporters of his signature claim that the virus is a hoax. Regardless, none of these explanations bodes well for the future of the Trump campaign. The pathetic picture of Trump exiting Marine One at the White House after the rally, his tie undone and his body slumped in defeat, may become the iconic image of this election cycle, the bookend to his emergence from that gold-plated escalator six years ago.
We have reached a point in the campaign when Democrats are warning against complacency and Republicans are openly confronting the fact that they are circling the drain. Allowing for the time-tested warning that the election is still months away, the dilemma Republicans face is that Trump’s divisive nature and disregard for the details of governing are an extremely poor fit to the moment. Trump needs to change in order to unwind the damage he absorbed in June, but he only knows how to be a reality show president. The public is crying out for leadership and direction in a time of crisis, and Trump is incapable of providing it. Absent a course correction, his presidential campaign will continue spiraling out of control. And he is taking the Republican Party with him.
This last point is striking terror in the hearts of any Republican who can read a poll. Older voters are peeling away. The suburbs are a lost cause. Even bread-and-butter evangelical voters are starting to soften. Almost everyone is dissatisfied with the state of the nation. Republicans who started the year believing Trump could repeat his 2016 second place victory are now confronting the sobering reality that the 2020 electorate has little appetite for incompetence.
Republicans knew what they were doing when they signed up for this. Those who condemned Trump as an egomaniac who would destroy the party before he claimed the 2016 nomination but decided to get on board rather than risk short-term defeat by opposing him have spent four years looking the other way while Trump sucked the life out of our democracy. At every turn, including during an impeachment trial, they could have stopped him and protected the country from the carnage we are experiencing at the significant but honorable cost of putting the national interests they swore to protect above their careers. But they did nothing. They got tax cuts and put a deeply conservative imprint on the judiciary, and decided this was an acceptable trade off. They kept their heads low and ignored the collateral damage to the republic and hoped to slide by.
But they also knew they were taking a risk that one day it could all come crashing down around them, and if it did they would be exposed as enablers with no way to avoid accountability for their behavior. The events of the past month have moved us closer to that reckoning. Republicans knew full well the scope of the deal they made and the character of the person they were engaging. It was a hugely expensive bargain, with the costs now measured in liberty and livelihoods and lives. And it increasingly looks like in November the check is coming due.