What happened at the White House last night was, basically, the Bible Stunt without the Bible. Let’s call it the South Portico Stunt.
If you were watching television yesterday evening during the news hour, you must have seen it. NBC Nightly News covered the move from Walter Reed to the White House door to door. Trump walked from the helicopter to the South Portico wearing a mask, but at the door he took it off and posed for pictures — waving, saluting, sticking his thumbs up, affecting a heroic scanning-the-horizon pose. In close-up videos he appeared to me to be fighting to breathe.
I have read that a video of the South Portico Stunt with thunderous and triumphal orchestral music was quickly posted to Trump’s Twitter account. I didn’t look.
It is entirely possible they’ll be hauling him back to Walter Reed on a stretcher by the end of the week, but we’ll see.
Greg Sargent points out that the South Portico Stunt appears to have been designed to help Trump sell the idea that there will be a vaccine available by election day.
Top White House officials are blocking strict new federal guidelines for the emergency release of a coronavirus vaccine, objecting to a provision that would almost certainly guarantee that no vaccine could be authorized before the election on Nov. 3, according to people familiar with the approval process.
Trump portrayed his return as a moment of extraordinary personal valor. One video displayed his arrival by helicopter as akin to that of a conquering hero. The other showed him addressing (prematurely, perhaps) his vanquishing of the virus, declaring: “Don’t be afraid of it.”
But, crucially, Trump also insisted that we will “beat it” because “we have the best medicines,” and “the vaccines are coming momentarily.”
The subtext to this is that Trump is losing. He is really, really losing. With less than a month to go, today the FiveThirtyEight nerds have his chances to be be reelected at 17 to 100. That’s the worst the odds have been for Trump since ever. The debate hurt him, and he is not getting a sympathy bump for getting sick. He doesn’t know how to be president, so all he’s got are stunts.
And it may be that he really is doing very well and doesn’t need to be at Walter Reed, but it’s much more likely his condition is worse than everyone is letting on, and he was the only one who thought leaving Walter Reed was a good idea. If his physical condition were that remarkably good, one suspects the White House doctor would be posting lung x-rays and blood test results and whatever on Twitter instead of refusing to answer direct questions about them.
“Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life,” wrote the man who had been airlifted to a hospital to receive experimental drugs from the country’s best doctors at taxpayer expense. “We have developed, under the Trump administration, some really great drugs & knowledge. I feel better than I did 20 years ago!”
The reaction from some public servants in the Republican Party fixated, predictably, on the president’s transcendent strength and power.
“President Trump won’t have to recover from COVID. COVID will have to recover from President Trump,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) wrote in the tweet equivalent of a Chuck Norris GIF.
“COVID stood NO chance against @realDonaldTrump!” tweeted Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.). She accompanied the message with a Wrestlemania GIF in which Trump attacks a man whose head had been replaced by a cartoon coronavirus. After punching the virus-head to the ground, he walks away grinning.
Trump’s response to his covid-19 diagnosis has reeked of disregard for human life. But he has given his image loving, obsessive attention.
On Sunday, the highly contagious commander in chief demanded that Secret Service agents risk their own health to feed his hunger for adulation. He climbed into the back of an SUV so he could ride by the crowd of supporters that had assembled outside Walter Reed. Agents are well prepared to face the dangers inherent in protecting the president. But requiring agents to seal themselves inside a vehicle along with the president’s personal viral load simply because he needed an ego boost should not be part of their job description. …
… Yet the man who fancies himself the ultimate showman has proved to be terrible at choreographing these bids for attention. His law-and-order posturing in front of St. John’s Church this summer had him looking like a confused would-be strongman manhandling a Bible. And over the weekend, as Trump waved to his devoted followers from behind the tinted windows of the black Chevy Suburban, he looked like the caged ringmaster in a circus of his own creation.
A rare moment of unity in the US election, as Donald Trump marked his return to the White House by gasping along with his detractors. On Monday night, the president puffed up the front staircase of his residence, his face coated in several more gallons of paint than the front elevation of the building. “Don’t let it dominate your lives,” he panted of the virus, a bad case of which tends to dominate your death.
Yet there he was, this hideous kink in the arc of history, giving the most dangerous balcony performance since Michael Jackson had his baby crowdsurf off one. The American people are all Blanket now.
The mask is off. After months of flirting with the notion, Trump is now explicit about his plan for the pandemic: He has none. He wants Americans to take the punch, take the deaths, and pretend all is fine. Trump is acting as though he has triumphed over the virus, and thus the rest of the country can too. But with his words and acts, he is making it likely that more Americans will die.
President Trump seems to be knocking off iconic (and not in a good way) moments in rapid succession now: the Lafayette Park church stunt in June, the slow speed base runabout in his armored SUV two days ago, and then last night’s Triumph of the Will manque set piece with Trump, bathed in light but also clearly struggling to breathe, triumphantly reentering the White House and confidently tossing off his mask. While the June incident long predated Trump’s personal health crisis, each moment shares a common theme: Trumpian efforts to demonstrate strength and dominance which fail because they claim too much, because Trump is in fact weak. And it shows.
We may say that Trump is a weak man in general. But here I speak specifically of political weakness. Trump is weak. He’s losing his reelection battle. He has tried for months to reverse his political decline with sometimes cartoonish abuses of powers. While he has largely gotten away with the abuses in legal terms (so far) they’ve failed politically. The St. John’s Church photo op was part of Trump’s effort to shift the tide of the election into a referendum on “Law and Order,” hearkening back to Richard Nixon’s campaigns in 1968 and 1972. Many Democrats feared this would work. But it hasn’t. In general it hasn’t worked because most Americans believe the George Floyd protests on balance have merit and because most see Trump as a source of chaos and disorder rather than a protector from it.
Also, I think most Americans realize by now that Trump is an asshole. And the only people who like assholes are other assholes.