For his entire life Trump has been a confidence man. A master of illusion.
- A young “athlete” too bone-spurred for the army.
- A “Wharton” grad who cheated his way into regular old Penn.
- A pitchman for phony diet vitamins that let you “have the silhouette you choose.” (This is an odd choice if, true.)
- A get rich quick schemer that left his marks flat broke.
- A tabloid king who bragged about his own supposed sexual prowess through his alias “John Barron.”
- A reality show successful businessman who likes to fire people, rather than a bankrupt businessman who’s too big of a coward to fire anyone to their face.
And then in 2016 he succeeded in the biggest bluff in history. He sold the American people on the story that he cared about the “forgotten man,” would jail the corrupt Hillary Clinton, make Mexico pay for a wall, and take lessons from his Art of the Deal business bible to Washington in order to Make America Great Again.
Three-and-a-half years into his administration it’s clear that not much of that has happened. And while he may not have the most transparent administration in history, he certainly has the most transparent emotions, allowing the American people a view into his private thoughts and grievances on Twitter dot com, at all hours of the night.
It was with this backdrop that his 2020 convention attempted an even bigger illusion than anything Trump attempted in 2016. They need to convince voters that what they’ve seen of this president and what’s happened to their lives isn’t reality.
To understand the picture that the RNC convention tried to paint, you first have to understand who it is they were trying to fool.
Trump’s narrow victory in 2016 was largely due to one group in particular: “The Haters.” The haters were the unprecedented number of voters who disliked both candidates in 2016 but voted for Trump in large margins. Depending on the data set we find that about 15-20 percent of the Trump vote in 2016 came from people who viewed him unfavorably.
It’s these voters that Sarah Longwell, my Republican Voters Against Trump colleague, has been talking to for the past three years in focus groups. She writes that in their view: “Trump is a bully and a narcissist, but they voted for him because they considered him a businessman who could potentially shake things up and they hate the Clintons.” They bought the Art of the Deal nonsense. They hate the media and think their criticisms of Trump are unfair. But they also don’t like “the tweets,” think he’s a bully and a jerk, and his buffoonish press conferences have given many of them doubts about his handling of the pandemic.
If the president doesn’t hold onto 90-95 percent of these voters, he’s toast.
So to keep them on board, he had to find a new con.
And here’s the thing, many of these voters are susceptible to this con. The president has undermined all the information that they are getting from neutral media sources, making Trump himself one of the few reliable narrators. And they’ve already bought it once, so Trump benefits from the natural human inclination to want to have your priors confirmed, to resist admitting that you made a mistake.
The problem? Over the past six months, for some of these voters the illusion has been lifted. They have seen the little man behind the curtain. Whether it be the impact the virus has had on their family. Or their outrage that the president couldn’t muster the minimum in unifying rhetoric in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
So the options facing the White House? 1) Demonstrate they have a plan to resolve the crisis and show a president committed to unifying the country 2) Sell a new illusion to these voters to convince them they don’t hate Trump as much as they thought. 3) Convince the public Joe Biden is Satan. (Literally, in the case of the Dilbert guy.)
And well, Donald Trump doesn’t do “plans” or “unity.” So doors number two and three it is.
I don’t think anyone was surprised that the convention went full bore on demonizing Joe Biden as a sleepy-eyed maniac who will “enslave” you and “eliminate everything you love.”
It was the other more hire-wire illusion that caught my eye. The one where Donald Trump had solved the coronavirus and secretly revealed himself to be a cuddly teddy bear that these suburban voters who have abandoned him would actually really really like if it weren’t for the media.
Advancing this illusion is why the RNC convention spent all of its time talking about the Glory Days of Winter 2019, taking credit for a vaccine that has not yet appeared (and that the president’s fans may not take if it does), and rewriting the history of the pandemic to make President Trump a fast-acting decider who saved us from the China Virus.
It’s why the president’s speech was a boring, State-of-the-Union-esque rundown of supposed accomplishments they can be proud of.
It’s why the convention featured black speakers attesting to Trump’s overwhelmingly white target audience that the real Donald isn’t the White Power tweeting bigot that the media makes him out to be.
And it’s also why speaker after speaker attested to the most absurd illusion of all: a softer, kinder, Donald.
His Twitter-man-slash-golf-caddy Dan Scavino said Trump was “a kind and decent man, who shows endless kindness to everyone he meets.” RNC Chair Ronna “Don’t call me Romney” McDaniel said she sees “private moments where he comforts people in times of pain and sadness.” And in her penultimate act as the White House’s most disingenuous staffer, Kellyanne Conway said when the president meets with people in need, he is “comforting and encouraging…assuring them that they matter.”
Do they really think people are going to buy this shit, you might ask?
Well, it worked for John Barron.
It worked when he lied his way onto the Forbes billionaires list.
And it worked on these very marks last time when they made him the leader of the free world.
So it’s hard to blame him for trying it one last time.