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Trump Can’t Take the Punches

He’s flailing about for a new strategy after recent events gave his campaign plans a beating.
July 20, 2020
Trump Can’t Take the Punches
Six Stages of Marring a Face, May 29, 1792. Artist Thomas Rowlandson. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

Mike Tyson famously said that “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Well, President Trump had a plan to defeat Sleepy Joe Biden. It went something like this.

1) The MAGA brand would evolve into KAG—“Keep America Great”—and Trump would use the period of economic prosperity he was overseeing to make the case to the voters that they shouldn’t trade horses midstream.

2) Then he’d cripple Biden with a Ukrainian pincer attack that would let Trump’s campaign and his Russian allies resuscitate the themes from their successful campaign against Crooked Hillary.

3) Finally, a whisper-turned-foghorn campaign about the former vice president’s problems with mental acuity and weakness and “stamina” would rekindle the atmospherics Trump used to defeat my former boss, Jeb Bush.

It might not have been a perfect plan. Or even the best plan—after all, it did get Trump impeached. But it was a plan with a chance at success. A plan that played to his political strengths. A plan that would have purchase with a significant portion of the electorate. And most importantly, it was a plan that an erratic president with negligible ability to use the more traditional levers of presidential influence was capable of executing.

In February, the president may not have been on a glide path to victory, but the plan was falling into place. He was still favored to win by every conventional measurement except those skewed and biased polls. And even though Operation Burisma had hit a speed bump, the MAGA media industrial complex was happy to will the Impeachment Hoax to life, truth be damned.

But then it happened. For the first time in his preposterously fortuitous political career, Donald Trump got punched in the mouth.

Sure he’s taken plenty of jabs. Marco implied he had a small dick. Somebody leaked a tape of him admitting to serial sexual assault. The fake news had fake newsed him time and again.

But this was different. This was a haymaker that landed square on his grill. The kind of roundhouse that would make even Iron Mike shudder.

The COVID-19 pandemic crumpled the economy that Trump was taking credit for.

Suddenly, Trump’s plans were moot. No longer did he have merely to run a smear campaign against an opponent who has lost a step, feed red meat to his rabid crowds, and take credit for good things that other people were doing—three tactics that make up his core skill set. No, now he was going to have to do something completely different and outside his comfort zone: He would have to manage a real-life crisis that was directly affecting people’s lives, rather than just a PR crisis. And he was going to be judged on his performance.

An election that is a referendum on how good of a job he was doing at the presidenting part of being president was not part of the plan. At all.

The result? Trump has been flailing about for a new approach that will let him get his feet back under him. And the early-round scorecards have not been pretty.

As we near the final 100 days of the campaign, all three legs of Trump’s original plan have been cut from under him.

1) With unemployment at 11 percent and over 140,000 Americans dead from the virus, Keep America Great no longer rings true. So instead he is forced to try to sell Make America Great Again, Again! The problem with the MAGAA 2020 strategy is that it requires Trump to actually do something to demonstrate we are back on the right path—like, say, to take some action to mitigate the virus—rather than just complain about the bad things other people are doing.

2) The Hunter Biden/Burisma scandal already got him impeached and was a massive stretch to begin with, in comparison to an ongoing FBI investigation into Clinton. In this current news environment, he doesn’t even have much of a chance at doing what he does best—manufacturing fake scandals—because it’s hard to see a path back to the front pages for Joe Biden’s large adult son, no matter what nonsense Trump and the Russkies can drum up.

3) Sleepy Joe is starting to sound like a compliment and President Trump’s own performance is not bolstering the contrast with Biden on the issue of mental acuity.

So a new approach is necessary. The Washington Post was the latest to report that Trump is pivoting away from using the “Sleepy Joe” moniker, since in a time of crisis and chaos a low-energy establishment politician might not look so bad. Instead, Trump is endeavoring to turn Biden, a middle-of-the-road Democrat who has been in Washington for 47 years, into an extremist who threatens to “Abolish the American Way of Life.” The RNC emailed reporters over the weekend arguing that “You Will Not Be Safe In Biden’s America.”

In short, Trump wants to sell the public on the idea that his opponent is both a low-energy establishment swamp creature and a radical who will eliminate the suburbs and bring untold death and destruction ripping apart the very fabric of our Republic.

Or put a different way, Trump 2020: Continuity with Change.

Trump wants to string these contradictory attacks together by depicting Biden as so riddled with dementia that he is simply a Trojan Horse for The Squad and ANTIFA. There are two problems with this.

First, Joe Biden is a human who exists and who has repeatedly and successfully avoided giving in to the far left time and again throughout the campaign.

Second, speaking of dementia . . . the president has an elephant-sized problem of his own making on that count.

Yesterday Chris Wallace ran circles around Trump, exposing his lies about the nation’s mortality rate and Biden’s record while emasculating Trump over his weird flex about a successful dementia test with the most devastating deadpan in the history of presidential interviews. This comes after the president’s weeks-long “slippery ramp” saga and an unending stream of blunders during his coronavirus press conferences that finally culminated with their cancellation after he suggested disinfectant injections as a possible cure.

As a result, the mental acuity leg of the stool is starting to get a little wobbly.

And while Trump takes the new Antifa Joe plan out for a test drive, the virus’s punches to the mouth just keep on coming.

The reality that has not set in yet is that—if you will forgive the extension of the metaphor—the only actual option that Trump has to deal with this disruption is to punch the virus back. He has to defeat it.

But that requires work. And consistency. And deferring to experts. And . . . leadership. As Ezra Klein wrote about Trump being mugged by reality, he needs to do what successful governors have done: “Demonstrate empathy and competence at a time when the American people are desperate for reassurance.”

None of these traits comes naturally to Donald Trump.

So his inner circle of advisers seems happy to let him live in the fantasyland where the new plan doesn’t require him to do any of these things. Instead they just have to ignore the haymakers and Let Donald Be Donald.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is “adamant that the best way forward is to downplay the dangers of the disease” and that he “has been particularly forceful in his view that the White House should avoid drawing attention to the virus.”

So there you have it.

The president has been punched. And the new three-point plan is as follows:

1) Ignore the thing that is punching you in the mouth over and over again, causing death and economic destruction throughout the country.

2) Pray that someone else fixes the problem for you.

3) Depict yourself as the law-and-order president by sending federal cops in camo to clash with protesters and convince the world that Average Joe Biden is the leader of MS-13.

In short, Trump has got just over a hundred days left to get bailed out by the vaccine gods or come up with a new plan.

Otherwise it’s gonna be a TKO.

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.