President Winning-by-Losing Is, in Fact, Losing
Donald Trump has made a career of turning bad news into good, but the virus has already defeated him.
July 9, 2020
Soon after the Supreme Court ruled, on Thursday morning, against Donald Trump’s effort to stop a Manhattan prosecutor from obtaining his tax returns, the President lamented how unjust the decision was. “Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference,’ ” he tweeted. “BUT NOT ME!” He elaborated: “This is all a political prosecution,” he said. “Not fair to this Presidency or Administration!” potus is, as ever, a whiny loser.
His whinging, though, should not obscure the fact that Trump, yet again, has escaped to fight another day. In a 7–2 ruling, the Justices, including two Trump appointees, reaffirmed the principle that no one, not even the President, is above the law. But the decision allowed Trump to continue fighting in lower courts over the terms under which he must comply, a ruling that makes it all but certain that he will not have to turn over his tax returns before this fall’s Presidential election. He may lament “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT,” but Trump seems to have once more managed to avoid having to produce information about his sketchy finances before facing voters. Losing just might be a form of winning after all. Sure enough, that was exactly what Trump’s advisers took to claiming. “This was a win for the President,” the Administration’s press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, declared from the White House lectern. Asked about Trump’s angry tweets, McEnany simply dismissed them as “general” comments. “It is a big win,” she added, before also saying, confusingly, that the President agreed with the dissenters in the case. “I would underscore the victory here.”
This is classic Trump Administration doublespeak. Reality is whatever the Trumpians say it is. The Supreme Court decision can be both terribly unfair and a great win. And why not? Trump has made a career of turning bad news into good, of rewriting bankruptcies and divorces and unfulfilled promises into spectacular accomplishments. After his Republican Party lost the House of Representatives, in 2018, Trump called the midterm-election results a “Big Victory.” After the special counsel Robert Mueller submitted a report, in 2019, documenting ten instances in which the President engaged in obstruction of justice, Trump called the report “complete and total Vindication.” But his problems now seem to be piling up, and I am not just referring to the question of when and how he will finally have to turn over his tax returns. As the coronavirus surges once again across America, polls show Trump losing more support by the day. This week, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report issued its July Electoral College ratings and determined that, as of right now, the Presidential election looks like a “Democratic tsunami.” Even the reliably pro-Trump polling agency Rasmussen registered the President at the lowest approval level of his tenure, with just thirty-nine-per-cent support. No wonder Trump is whining. He is always about “ME!” The question of the moment is this: With Americans suffering so deeply from the pandemic and the attendant economic crisis, and with a national election to decide his fate only a hundred and seventeen days away, can Trump pull off his most epic act of winning by losing yet?
In her scorching new book, “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man,” Trump’s niece Mary Trump portrays her Uncle Donald as an abusive narcissist with a rampant and undiagnosed “antisocial personality disorder,” and she blames many of his evident character flaws on his father, Fred, a “sociopath” who withheld love from his son when he needed it most—as a small child. It might seem contradictory—beyond even Trump’s standards—to claim in the course of a few hours that the Supreme Court had been wildly unfair to him and had also handed him a significant victory. But his niece, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, shows that this has long been Trump’s way. In the early nineteen-nineties, she notes, when his business was in “increasingly serious trouble” and banks were refusing to extend him any more credit, Trump found a long list of others to blame. “Nothing was ever fair to him,” she writes. At the same time, Trump had to please his father by continuing to portray himself as a wild success. The future President’s demanding patriarch would not accept anything less. In the book’s particularly to-the-point conclusion, Mary Trump describes the “toxic positivity” that she says is his family legacy. The President, in other words, is simply incapable of accepting a harsh or unpleasant reality. He has no choice but to deny it. Losing is winning for him. It has to be.
This is also the strongly held view of various Trumpologists outside of his family, who have discerned in the President’s biography a long history of being unable to deal with truly negative circumstances. “He actually holds very few tools in his kit. He’s not equipped for compromise or changing direction. Indeed, he only knows how to move forward on the path he has determined,” one of Trump’s biographers, Michael D’Antonio, told me. “This is why he got into trouble with his bankruptcies way back when—he failed to accept that he was a bad manager of complex organizations, and kept trying it until he was hemmed in by lenders who refused him further credit.” Like Mary Trump, D’Antonio said he believed that Trump is incapable of processing bad news and dealing with it. “Letting in negative feedback is almost painful for him. In fact, it almost seems to me like he either cannot hear, or really hold in his mind, the bad news that he should receive and then let guide him in making adjustments,” D’Antonio told me.
The problem for Trump now is that, although his willful inversion of reality may work for him as a coping mechanism, it is wildly unsuited as a formula for governance, especially during a public-health crisis, when facts matter and spin is irrelevant. The coronavirus pandemic and the recession are the ultimate bad news for a President who can’t bear it. On Wednesday, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, travelled to Brussels to speak to the European Parliament—her first appearance outside of Germany since the start of the pandemic. As always, she was understated but unyielding. “You cannot fight the pandemic with lies and disinformation,” she said. Here in Washington, where the grim march of the coronavirus is unrelenting, it sounded like a message aimed right at the man in the White House.
But President Losing-Is-Winning has an increasingly inarguable set of facts to wrestle with. The U.S. has repeatedly set records for new cases in recent days. The spike is sharp, and it is broad: the numbers are now going up in thirty-three states. In some, the pandemic is spreading at an alarming rate: a rise of thirty-eight per cent in new cases in California this week, twenty-eight per cent in Texas, twenty-five per cent in Florida. With more than a hundred and thirty thousand Americans already dead, a new projection this week suggests that more than two hundred thousand Americans will die of the coronavirus by November. Even a graphic on the Trump-friendly Fox News on Thursday was devastating. It showed total cases, total deaths, and new cases. Underneath the first two numbers was the phrase “Most in the World.”
On Thursday morning, shortly before the Supreme Court ruling, Trump contended, as he does daily, that the rise in cases is merely a result of an increase in testing. Of course, his sheer repetition of this falsehood does not make it true. As large swaths of the country find themselves dealing with panicking doctors and packed I.C.U.s and the dawning recognition that now is not the time to reopen bars and nail salons and amusement parks, Trump has, in recent days, claimed that “ninety-ninety per cent of cases” are mild, that the virus is no big deal, and that a cure is coming very soon. This spring, he successfully politicized the wearing of masks. This week, he began a new campaign to politicize the reopening of schools. He not only insisted that American schools reopen, regardless of concerns about safety, but threatened to withhold federal funding from them unless they do so.
This is exactly what Merkel was talking about. Trump and his Administration did not just get the coronavirus wrong. They lied. They spread disinformation. And they are still doing so. Perhaps—although the polls do not reflect it, and despite history suggesting that a comeback for him is unlikely—the President sees political advantage in this misinformation campaign. But there is no such thing as winning by losing against a deadly disease. Trump can still pull out a victory in the election.
He has, however, already been defeated by the pandemic. We are all losers now.
Susan B. Glasser, a staff writer, was the founding editor of Politico Magazine. In September, she will publish, with Peter Baker, “The Man Who Ran Washington.”