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The Death of Trump’s Illusions

This is what a dead campaign walking looks like.
June 22, 2020
The Death of Trump’s Illusions
Well. Bye. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

1. The Stench of Death

It is impossible—not “difficult,” but “impossible”—to look at Trump’s reelection campaign and find any positive indicators.

  • The president’s job approval has never been higher than 47 percent and is currently in the low 40s.
  • He has trailed Joe Biden in all but four of the polls taken this cycle. Go look.
  • He is being out-fundraised by Biden.
  • Unemployment is above 13 percent.
  • 120,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus.
  • The right-track/wrong-track number now stands at -41.
  • And then there are those empty seats.

This is what a campaign in free-fall looks like.

Back on June 8, I cautioned that the hour was later than you think, that there were only 20 weekend left until Election Day during which Trump would have to stop his decline, find a floor, reverse the direction of the race, and then make up a large deficit.

That’s a lot of work to do in 20 weekends.

Well, 10 percent of that runway is now gone. And Trump has gotten worse.

There is no better here.

There will be firings from Trump’s campaign. There will be more coronavirus deaths. There will be debates against Biden that will not go well for Trump. (Trust me on this. Biden is an effective debater who has lots of recent practice. Trump hasn’t won a debate since the early 2016 primaries.)

Donald Trump is the most unpopular president to run for reelection in our lifetimes.

He began his reelection effort already in the hole by 3 million votes.

The environment is—objectively—terrible for incumbents.

And Trump has trailed the challenger by a larger and more consistent margin than any president in the history of modern polling.

There’s a line in the NYT‘s postmortem of the Tulsa debacle that jumped out at me: “President Trump and several staff members stood backstage and gazed at the empty Bank of Oklahoma Center in horror.”

What did they think this moment was going to look like?

2. Correction

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

On Friday I wrote about Confederate monuments and brand icons and I lumped Col. Sanders in with Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Here’s what I said:

The first thing that bugged me about the Colonel was that he looked like Boss Hog and guys like that are never good. But it was only in middle school that I first asked myself, “What a minute. In what military outfit did Sanders achieve the rank of colonel?”

Sanders sure doesn’t look like an Air Force guy to me. We’re glorifying a guy who fought for the Confederacy as a brand icon for a national fast food chain? I think I was 13 when this first started to bug me.

I hope he’s next.

This is, as a few hundred people kindly emailed to point out, totally wrong.

Allow me to highlight the depth of my ignorance on this issue. Because it is not simply the case that I did not understand that Col. Sanders wasn’t a Confederate officer. That would have been less embarrassing.

I didn’t even know Col. Sanders was a real person.

Seriously. I thought the Colonel was—like the Burger King, or Ronald McDonald, or the Dos Equis guy—a fictional character designed to create brand identity.

(In my defense, there’s a long history of actors playing the part of Col. Sanders in KFC ads, which is . . . kind of weird?)

Anyway, the real Col. Harland Sanders was a fascinating gentleman and one of those figures who manages to span what we think of as different epochs in American life.

He was born in 1890, but remained a public figure until 1980. (It always brings me up a little short to realize that once upon a time in America you had people who were born before the invention of the car who then lived to watch a man walk on the moon. That’s what progress used to look like.)

His “rank” was that of an honorary “Kentucky colonel” and his original restaurant predates even the first McDonald brothers’ burger joint by 10 years.

I’m always happy to correct errors, but this makes me even happier than usual because I got to learn about one of those great only-in-America stories.

May the Colonel’s visage grace buckets of crispy, golden chicken for all eternity.

And to make my struggle session even more delicious, on Friday afternoon Jim Swift had a KFC family feast delivered to my house. Thanks Jim!

3. Kentucky Fried

Here’s a great New Yorker profile of the Colonel from 1970:

Colonel Harland Sanders, the fried-chicken magnate, who seems in public to be as jolly and serene as Santa Claus, is actually one of the world’s foremost worriers. The Colonel maintains a vigilant fretfulness in the face of overwhelming good fortune. He has won money, fame, and the affection of his fellow-citizens. Now approaching the age of eighty, he has lived to see the company he founded, the Kentucky Fried Chicken Corporation, grow from a one-man operation to one of the giants of the food industry. There is a vast network of Kentucky Fried Chicken take-home food outlets covering every part of the nation but New York City, where the K.F.C. franchising effort has just begun. This year, these outlets will sell more than five hundred million dollars’ worth of fried chicken—more prepared food, in dollar volume, than will be sold by any other company in the world. The company has made millionaires of the Colonel and more than a hundred other people, some of them close friends of the Colonel’s. And the Colonel’s success has been artistic as well as financial—his secret recipe and his fast-frying process produce fried chicken of a quality unknown in New York restaurants and rare even in Southern restaurants.

Despite all these pleasing developments, the Colonel cannot rest easy. A perfectionist in an imperfect world, he dreams of fried chicken so golden and delicious that it will bring tears to the eyes of a grown man, and of cracklin’ gravy so sublime that, he says, “it’ll make you throw away the durn chicken and just eat the gravy.” During most of his waking hours, the Colonel is haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere, is doing something to hurt his chicken—that some upstart in the company is tampering with the recipe, or that a careless franchisee is undercooking or overcooking. The Colonel is vexed almost beyond endurance by the subject of gravy. The gravy now served by the K.F.C. franchisees is good, but it isn’t the Colonel’s. “Let’s face it, the Colonel’s gravy was fantastic, but you had to be a Rhodes Scholar to cook it,” a company executive has explained. “It involved too much time, it left too much room for human error, and it was too expensive.” This attitude is incomprehensible to the Colonel, who believes that making money is a reward for the virtuous, not a matter of cost accounting. Besides, he would rather have memorable gravy than extra profits. “If you were a franchisee turning out perfect gravy but making very little money for the company,” another K.F.C. executive has remarked, “and I was a franchisee making lots of money for the company but serving gravy that was merely excellent, the Colonel would think that you were great and I was a bum. With the Colonel, it isn’t money that counts, it’s artistic talent.”

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.