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The Two Trumps

August 25, 2020
The Two Trumps
Donald Trump arrives to speak to the press ahead of the renewed briefing of the Coronavirus Task Force in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on July 22, 2020. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Over the past three and a half years, many of the president’s most reluctant enablers have taken to engaging in what I like to call “Earth Two Trumpism.”

This strain is particularly endemic among the foreign policy establishment, and the president’s own Secretaries of State and United Nations Ambassadors have frequently talked about the administration’s policy as if zombie Reagan/Bush are still in charge. They focus on the elements of the policy they like (moving the embassy to Jerusalem, standing up to the U.N., ripping up the Iran deal) and don’t discuss the stuff they don’t like (love letters to Kim Jon Un, largely ending resettlement for political asylees, pressuring allies to spread false Russian propaganda about political opponents, mean tweeting Angela Merkel, etc). In Congress, the Earth Two Trumpers like to focus on the judges and some arcane bill signings and completely ignore the corruption, the wall, the tweets, the COVID response, the gassing of protesters etc. etc.

To the Never Trumpers’ chagrin, Earth Two Trumpers have largely succeeded in this effort by ducking hostile press, hiding beneath the supernova of Trump’s rolling controversies, and occasionally taking a lick when they avoid reporters questions or get slapped on the hand and have to pretend  it was just honest incompetence.

But eventually the reality of Trumpism is going to meet their imaginary version and something will have to give for the party to move forward. Night one of the convention was the first step in this process as it exposed the chasm between the two Trumps.

The genuine Trumpers spoke about the man in full. They have fully embraced the cultural grievance politics and the “owning of the libsism” that defines the platform-less convention whose keynote speakers were a pair of ambulance chasers who waved their guns at Black Lives Matter protesters from the grassy knoll outside their enormous Italian palazzo.

For Donald Trump Jr. and his very, very, very passionate girlfriend, cancel culture was a bigger issue than COVID-19 or police brutality or judges. Matt Gaetz painted Trump as a visionary on par with Lincoln and Washington and gave a rollicking rundown of all the characters in the extended MAGA-universe:  Basement Biden, MS-13 moving next door, and woketopians ruining our great culture. These speakers tended to focus more on the threats from Antifa penetrating the suburbs and the Democrats emptying prisons so bad guys could come to rape and pillage neighborhoods.

But they were often followed directly by Earth Two Trumpers who would make the opposite case. For Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, Trump’s success signing criminal justice reform was worth highlighting. For them it was Biden who *filled* the prisons and Trump who “cares” about people treated unfairly. Ronna McDaniel who went so far as to say Trump shows a lot of behind the scenes empathy that the rest of us don’t know about!

Scott’s closer was a master class of the genre. Go read the text. All Donald Trump did in his 3.5 years was “build the economy,” sign tax cuts, and make “opportunity zones” happen. Trump’s entire presidency is reduced to his disembodied invisible hand. Scott’s Pope Francis bears almost nothing in common with Gaetz’s Pope Benedict.

The reality is it’s in these politicians’ interest to continue to live on Earth Two and ignore the truth of our president, it is how they survive. It’s in some voters interest as well, but the survival incentive isn’t as strong. Over the last 6 months of crises, the reality of the real earth has infringed on a lot of Earth Two voters, the question is whether Scott and Haley can bring them back into the fantasy.

2. Rank Punditry

JVL likes to remind me that while I prefer to wax poetic, I’m actually here for my campaign analysis, so I wanted to provide a bit of that, because I’m sensing a bit of overconfidence on the left that I’d like to throw a bit of cold water on.

While the Trump circus last night may have seemed preposterous to those of us outside their bubble of unreality, I kept thinking that I knew who they were really speaking to.

Somewhere between 15-20% of Trump’s vote in 2016 came from people who said they had an unfavorable view of him but basically hated Hillary/the left more. This was an unprecedented number in modern presidential polling, because we had not had an election with two candidates who were as disliked.

So, when you see Trump’s numbers dip from about 47% approval in March to 43% approval at present, these are the people he has lost. To generalize, they tend to be either traditional conservatives who “don’t like the tweets” or Obama/Trump voters who don’t like much of the GOP orthodoxy but thought he was an outsider who can get things done. Trump has lost altitude with both of these groups as his mania has become front and center during the compounding crises.

Night one of the convention was aimed at clawing back these groups. Reminding them everything that frightens them about the far left, and repositioning Trump as someone who has gotten things that they like done, not the incompetent television binge-viewer who has let everything go to shit.

And I’m not yet convinced that he won’t be successful in bringing at least some of them back into the fold and tightening the race as we head into Fall.

3. Jacob Blake

Here are the topics on my iPhone’s “Triad Notes” I didn’t get to in my four days as substitute teacher:

•The NBA Bubble

Sports and the pandemic

•The changing nature of being a “fan” during a pandemic

•Biden’s nickname status

57% of GOP voters saying the # of covid deaths are acceptable

Despicable MBS

•U.S. absence in Belarus/Navalny

•Fascism (not sure what i meant when i made that note, could be a lot of stuff!)

In short, there’s a lot of shit happening, I wish I could have gotten to more.

But I couldn’t hand over the reins without talking about Jacob Blake. If you have not seen the horrifying, haunting video of him being shot 7 times in the back by police, while his children were in the back seat of the car watching, while bystanders were screaming for his life, I implore you to do so.

Somehow those bullets have not yet killed him. He’s currently paralyzed from the waist down, in a hospital. I’ve watched so many of these now. The Philando Castile incident is the one that is the most burned in my mind.

The reason why I felt compelled to address this is that one of the many maddening parts of these incidents is that they have become so commonplace that it’s hard to know what will spark the outrage, and which incidents will get the attention they deserve.

Here are some stats. 1,146 people died at the hands of police in 2019 in the United States. The United Kingdom had 3. Denmark, Switzerland, and Iceland had 0. The U.S. rate of police killings per capita is right below Iran and just above Angola and Colombia. This is not something that we can or should accept.

That doesn’t mean we have to accept burning cars and trucks in Kenosha. But it does mean there has to be action and acknowledgement of the problem.

We are not seeing that from this Republican Party. I do not believe Jacob Blake was mentioned last night at the convention. (Happy to be corrected if I am wrong on that). He was mentioned in conservative media as both Tucker Carlson and Steven Crowder said the attempted murder of Blake was justified because he’s a bad apple blah blah blah and the police should have carte blanche to kill people that don’t listen to them.

I’m so enraged when I watch these clips that it is hard to even know what to say. So I’ll just say this:

Jacob Blake’s life matters. And I pray the voices in this country who realize it are lifted up in the coming years.

Thanks for reading.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.