Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Why Can’t Trump Land a Punch?

There’s a reason Trump can’t lay a glove on Joe Biden.
July 24, 2020
Why Can’t Trump Land a Punch?
(Hannah Yoest / Photo: GettyImages)

In 2015, Trump crushed an entire political dynasty with two words: “low energy.” But Jeb wasn’t the only recipient of a truly destructive nickname. Trump was the king of the takedown. In the Republican primary, Trump eviscerated his enemies with a single tweet or a mean nickname, impaling the other two heavyweight contenders with one adjective each—“Liddle Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted.”

What a difference four years makes.

Trump’s nicknames no longer shape the news cycle. Trump’s Twitter account no longer drives the narrative. And Trump’s lies are no longer reported as fact, even on Fox News. (Well, with some obvious exceptions.)

What happened?

In 2015, the American political world had never been confronted by a politician so deeply untethered to the truth. Trump lied the same way normal people breathe. Whether it was about his finances, or his health, or “watching Shark Week” with a porn star. (Best euphemism ever?)

Trump literally paid actors to come to his announcement that he was running for president and pretend to be supporters!

Can you imagine what would have happened to any other Republican presidential candidate in the history of Republican presidential candidates if they had gotten caught paying a crowd to show up for their launch?

John Huntsman: Dead.

Bob Dole: Dead.

Phil Gramm: Triple dog dead.

And Trump’s super power wasn’t just his shamelessness in lying about himself—he was willing to lie about what he wanted to do as president.

Presidential candidates are always promising crazy stuff that has no way of passing into law.

But there has always been a line. Like, if you were running for president you could promise that you would “end poverty” or “fit your entire tax return on a postcard.” And sure, everyone knew that you weren’t going to really do those things because the problems were complex and legislating is hard and blah, blah, blah. But at least, in a perfect world, these goals were theoretically possible.

No one was ever willing to say, “Vote for me and we’ll change the universal gravitational constant.” Or, “I pledge that together, we can make alicorns real.”

But Trump kind of was. He promised not only to build an unbroken physical wall stretching across America’s entire southern border—itself an exercise in magical thinking—but that Mexico would pay for this contraption.

He would have had a better chance with the alicorns. I hear InGen is doing amazing work these days.

Democrats didn’t know what to do with someone who lied like Trump. And the media found themselves totally at sea because there was no handbook in America for a free press covering an aspiring autocrat.

But things change. And people and institutions change, too. Donald Trump is no longer an outsider promising to blow things up. He’s the guy in charge and he blew things up real good. Promises made, promises kept!

Because of Trump’s administration, the United States has endured (so far) the equivalent death toll of 47 September 11’s. The unemployment rate is double digits, and many of us cannot safely leave our homes. Weirdly enough, people now seem to view “blowing it all up” as more bug than feature. Go figure.

Trump has other problems, too.

For instance, everything Trump accuses Biden of doing, he does himself, only worse. So when Trump World tried to shop the idea that Biden was creepy with women, all it really did was remind people that Trump has more than two dozen sexual assault allegations on his rap sheet.

When Trump World pushed the idea that Hunter Biden was somehow corrupt, you couldn’t help but think about Jivanka and DJTJ and all the ways the Trump family has been siphoning cash out of the public coffers.

Trump World tried painting Joe as doddering and old at the same time that the president was rambling through daily press conferences and struggling to walk down a ramp.

This is the problem with projection: Once people get wise to the pathology, then every boomerang you throw at your opponent comes back and pops you in the nose.

But ultimately, Trump’s biggest problem is himself.

Donald Trump has been president for 3 years and 186 days. He is no longer an outsider and the country is not better off than it was in 2016.

Unemployment is at 11 percent. Numerous countries have closed their borders to America (including, this past weekend, the Bahamas). And Trump still has no plan to slow the spread of coronavirus.

In 2015 Trump was able to make the case that he was a changemaker. He could say, as he did to African Americans, “what do you have to lose?”

But in mid-2020, the problem is that Americans can see exactly how much they’ve lost and are keenly aware of how much they still could lose.

And it’s a lot.

Molly Jong-Fast

Molly Jong-Fast is a contributor to The Bulwark and the author of three books. Follow her on Twitter @MollyJongFast.