Tuesday’s White House press briefing was one of the most disturbing moments of Donald Trump’s slide into madness and desperation. As I write this, hours later, I keep thinking, “What in the actual fuck was that?”
Like an addled necromancer with the heavy charnel stench of a dead campaign on him, Trump spent more than an hour chanting the old incantations from an eldritch grimoire (The Dark Booke of Bannon, perhaps) only to find that nothing was working. Even his most devoted followers were eyeing the exits and wondering when some apprentice would step forward to lead him off gently off the stage for a rest and a posset of unicorn blood.
Trump was plainly mentally and physically exhausted, grimly plodding through a badly written set of weak-sauce talking points that wasn’t the product of a research team, but stuff scrawled with a Sharpie and pulled from his ass.
It was that much of a descent from Trump’s old swagger and showmanship. Let’s be honest: Trump may have lowered our standards for presidential media performances from “dignified and erudite” to something a good bit lower than “drunk uncle at Thanksgiving,” but we still expected at least a little more than Machine Gun Donnie riffing off absurd prophecies of doom.
For the tiny minority of Trumphadis who still imagine there is some rational, considered version of Donald Trump lurking inside that hair helmet, what they saw Tuesday was a desperate candidate flailing, madly spewing agitprop that even a Tucker Carlson producer would stare at in awe of its madness.
This doesn't feel like a presidential campaign ready to suddenly emerge with a cadre of competent adults in the room. It doesn’t feel like a campaign ready to convert from distress to comeback.
The big reason why it’s impossible is simple: Trump runs the entire campaign operation from his impulses and instincts. They can hire 5,000 people for his campaign effort, and not one of them can persuade or change him.
Sure, his campaign still has several hundred million dollars in the bank, but with their colossal burn rate, terrible return on investment, and Borgia-style leadership fights (psssst, Brad, get a food taster), this doesn't have the feeling of a unified group seeking one goal. Instead, Tuesday’s presser felt like Donald Trump seizing the reins of the campaign from Brad and Jared and baby daddy Jason Miller and getting back to the red-meat white-power themes he loved so well in 2016.
No one in the campaign can control him. No one in the White House even wants to. As CNN’s Jim Acosta put it after this latest disaster, “We are down to Kool-Aid drinkers and next of kin” at the Trump White House. No one there will stop him, because Trump has worn down every competent, sane person who would possibly imagine working in his White House. It’s the most thankless job in D.C., and rats notoriously leave sinking ships rather than board them.
A good third of the remarks Tuesday involved some variation of “scary foreigners are coming to kill you.” We had wall porn, caravan porn, China porn, and the rest of the Trumpian nationalist spank bank of real and imagined threats to Trumpmerica.
This was a fitting capper to an interview with CBS earlier in the day that also departed the rails at orbital velocity when Trump defended the display of the Confederate flag on the grounds of free speech. Donald Trump, a notoriously litigious man who called the press “the enemy of the people” and who just this week sought to forbid his own niece from publishing a book about him, is not exactly a paragon of free speech absolutism.
Midway through Tuesday’s presser a consultant for one of the endangered Senate races texted me: “Fuck me. Seriously. [REDACTED] needed this like a hole in the head.”
What? A toxic slurry of racially charged anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner ranting about walls, the insidious Chinese, and the murderous Mexicans doesn’t work for you? Glossing over the wild and ongoing mismanagement of the pandemic isn’t giving swing voters a warm and fuzzy feeling about GOP candidates? Defending the Confederate flag doesn’t sell with educated suburban voters? Who knew?
Tuesday was the latest signal to those U.S. Senate campaigns that have been taking on so much water in the past few weeks: you're fucked. The very things your pollsters and strategists are telling you to avoid—immigration absolutism, overt cruelty, and the culture war—are mandatory formations in the Trump Party. Enjoy that Kool-Aid, and I wish you luck on the comet.
Trump was struggling Tuesday to reconnect to the grunting populism of his 2016 success. In it, he was never held to account no matter how much footsie he played with the alt-right and its media outlets of record.
Now, the feeling that the magic isn’t working and that that spell has finally failed isn’t wishful thinking on the part of the Never Trump movement.
It’s a president, a presidency, and a campaign in steep decline.
You hate to see it.