“What Do I Do?”

Donald Trump reportedly called Tucker Carlson recently and cried, “What do I do? What do I do?” in a desperate search for ways to salvage his crumbling re-election bid. There is no reporting on what the Fox News star told him, and with a single source for the story it’s possible the conversation never even took place. But the question is a good one, and I would like to answer it directly to Donald Trump because I’m sure he’s a big fan of this site. 

Learn to swim.

Please allow me to explain what I mean. We are in the middle of a pandemic in which the United States is suffering the worst outcomes in the world. The president has awesome powers to attack the problem, but using them requires things like hard work, discipline, knowledge, facility with analytical reasoning, the ability to plan, respect for science and enough humility to defer to experts. None of these items are in your skill set. And — let’s face it — they are not why a minority of Americans elected you. Your appeal had more to do with your gift for channeling grievances, spinning fantasy tales and cutting down opponents, sort of like the way you have been going after people who wear masks and telling everyone that the virus is just going to go away.

Those skills are so 2016. This may sound odd, but people who are grounded in reality and recognize the threat we face want to feel like we’re doing something to protect ourselves. Most people don’t want division and magical thinking in a pandemic. They want you to take effective steps to combat the virus, not just claim you did. They don’t want you to keep flattering yourself about how your response was incredible, because polling makes it clear just how many people think it wasn’t. And that economy you want so desperately to re-open by November? If you had a real plan last winter to test people and trace the path of the virus like successful nations did, you would be in a position now — or soon — to begin re-opening safely, rather than misleading people that the pandemic is over, throwing them back into the jaws of the virus and risking a second shutdown with far greater economic damage. And the best part is you would have gotten the credit for it, instead of losing the support of voters in almost every demographic category.

That’s what a competent response would have gotten you. Instead, your investment in neglect continues to cascade. The virus is exploding out of control in large parts of the country. States across the South and Southwest face a catastrophic future. Your response? Insist we live with the disaster you set in motion. We can’t undo the damage that brought us here but the more we continue on the course you set the greater the damage will be. That’s why a majority of the country is concluding that you’re the wrong person to be president at this moment.

But you weren’t concerned about health outcomes in that conversation with Tucker. You were worried about your re-election prospects. You get the connection between how people view your approach to the coronavirus and your horserace numbers, but you’re bewildered by your inability to sell people on the greatness of your response. It never crosses your mind that your re-elect numbers won’t change until your response does, that people are experiencing this as reality, not reality TV. Outcomes matter, not ads. And because you don’t have what it takes to rise to the moment, your political problem keeps getting worse.

So here’s the hard part — your political problem should keep getting worse. As people come to see you as the wrong person with the wrong set of skills to lead the country through this crisis they are going to want to vote you out of office. That’s how it’s supposed to work. I can’t blame you for wanting to go back to the golden age of last January, when it looked like you were only going to lose the popular vote by five points. But you can’t.  It would take a heroic effort at this point to erase from memory what you did to lead us to where we find ourselves today.

Without the tools to approach this crisis like a leader, what choice do you have but to fall back on what you know? I suspect you will continue to do what you have done all along — try to sell the country on outcomes we can see with our eyes aren’t there. Escape to the fantasy that the polls are wrong while doing everything you can to discredit the election just in case they’re right.

Which leads me to my advice. What you’re doing won’t help you. It won’t be enough. The more people you alienate the bigger the loss, and bigger losses are harder to discredit. It’s a downward spiral and you have passed the point of no return. Your campaign is the Titanic and it has hit the iceberg. The lifeboats are full. 

Learn to swim.