Unmasked

I have long felt that living through the Trump administration is like watching a movie that’s so bad it would be comical if it wasn’t tragic. Had the past four years never happened, I can imagine a pitch meeting where someone tried to convince studio executives to bankroll a film based on the events we’ve endured. “Hear me out. It starts when  . . . Donald Trump . . . is  . . . elected . . . president!” If the meeting didn’t end with that absurd premise, the script it produced would have been developed as a farce. 

Maybe that’s why the week’s events feel like the penultimate scene in a really bad screenplay. Republican leaders, celebrating their good fortune at being able to complete a forty-year quest for an impenetrable conservative Supreme Court majority, hosted a super spreader event to honor Amy Coney Barrett and unwittingly exposed themselves to a wily virus officially dismissed as a hoax by their leader, who had to be air-vacced to the hospital for emergency care. Meanwhile in the theater, as they await the final scene, the audience grumbles that it wants its money back. I mean, who would even want a writing credit for a plot twist this trite?

Still, as the week’s events unfolded, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something important had changed in a story that still awaits an ending. It started with Trump’s testosterone-charged bullying session in Cleveland on Tuesday and culminated in his hospitalization this past weekend. In that span of a few days, Trump’s veneer of strength was stripped away in a manner so public and glaring that no one could miss it. It’s always difficult in real time to know how something will look in the long run, but the last week of September really did feel like the moment when the curtain was pulled away from the Wizard of Oz.

According to insider accounts, Trump believes he won the debate. He thought he looked strong and in command while Biden looked weak and submissive. The public, however, doesn’t see it that way. Majorities saw a hostile, out of control president who refused to repudiate white supremacy and acted like someone badly in need of an intervention. When focus group participants use words like “crackhead” and “unhinged” to describe your performance, it’s a pretty good sign you missed the mark. We’ve all seen Trump’s tweets or video bites of his rallies, but not many had been subjected to ninety minutes of his undiluted aggression. Watching it felt like being assaulted. In the aftermath, Republicans noticed a decline in their polling up and down the ballot. 

Then things went downhill. With the middle-of-the-night admission that Trump had tested positive and the subsequent “precautionary” trip to Walter Reed, the rationale for the Trump campaign collapsed. The fake virus that was going to magically disappear had caught up to the man who knew from the start that it was real and lethal and tried to wish it away. For the better part of a year, Trump had been spinning the illusion that everything was normal, masks were unnecessary, and we can open the economy and go back to school and charge ahead like it was still 2019. His re-election prospects were dependent on convincing enough people that there’s nothing to see here — then changing the subject. Now the pandemic is going to hover over the contest until Election Day arrives.

The virus not only claimed Trump’s campaign strategy and threatens to put him out of commission for the home stretch, it took a hammer to the illusion of invincibility at the heart of his fabricated self-image as he struggled at every turn to reclaim it. What should have been medical decisions about treating his illness fell victim to Trump’s relentless need to protect the fiction that he was as strong as ever: the midnight announcement of a positive test that was known to him for some time; his fear of being taken from the White House on a stretcher; the contrived photos of him hard at work in the hospital signing his name on an empty piece of paper; Sunday’s narcissistic photo op stunt ride outside the hospital; and the performance art press briefings by his medical team. It was all designed to win the news cycle, to sell the preposterous idea that nothing is seriously wrong. But it will only convince those who still need to be fooled. Everyone else sees a reckless mortal who brought this on himself through his dishonesty. The illusion is gone. 

And of course there is the cover-up. The days ahead will be consumed in part with questions of when Trump was diagnosed, when his treatment began, and how many people he exposed when he knew he had the virus. It will echo his malignant incompetence last February, when he treated a pandemic as a public relations problem.

The cascading events of the past week have left Trump politically deflated in a way he never has been before. He may regain his physical strength and campaign again before November 3, but he is a diminished figure. He will continue to downplay the virus, but after his Covid diagnosis he will look pathetic to anyone outside the hardcore base. He may continue to bluster his way through the election, but with the con at the center of his campaign exposed, his threats to stay in office past January don’t feel quite as ominous as they did one week ago. More than at any time in the past four years it is possible to imagine, and I’m paraphrasing here, that he’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, he will disappear