Trump could not have possibly been surprised, either, when CBS News correspondent Weijia Jiang asked a pointed question about why Trump was trying to frame the testing as some sort global competition. Instead of giving a coherent answer, the president told her twice she should direct her question to “China,” which many have interpreted as a shot at Jiang’s ethnicity. In the interchange that ensued, Trump labeled her question “nasty” twice—his typical putdown for a question he doesn’t like—and then, after calling on CNN’s Kaitlan Collins and then uncalling on her, he abruptly shut the presser down by saying, “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much,” and marched away from the podium.
And this wasn’t even the weirdest part of the presser! When a reporter asked about his recent “Obamagate“ tweets and wanted to know exactly what crime he was accusing his predecessor of, Trump avoided answering, shooting back at the reporter, “You know what the crime is, the crime is very obvious to everybody.” And it’s not the only crime Trump is bird-dogging. Recent Trump’s tweets have reprised his old and completely baseless accusation that MSNBC’s Scarborough was culpable in the death, 19 years ago, of a staffer. (For what it’s worth, Senate Republicans seems to want no part of Trump’s Obamagate-mongering, according to POLITICO.)
Embracing mania…engaging in pageantry…fight-picking…conspiracy theorizing…throwing a public tizzy. While none of these batty Trump behaviors are new, their current intensity invites us to ask once more why he still goes on like this.
Above all, as Rob Long put it in the May Commentary, Trump likes to be watched. “The camera is always your friend,” is his guiding principle, Long writes. “The more you let people see—even the nasty stuff—the safer you are.” The greater his antics, the greater his exposure, the greater the commentary, and the larger the feedback loop. See, I’m writing about him and you’re reading about him. Almost three and half years into his presidency, he’s learned that there’s little political blowback from his followers for whatever lunacy the camera records. In fact, as we’ve seen from his rallies, the more he lies and blusters, the more they like it.
For the same reason, Trump loves it when we yell back at him about his Obamagate B.S. or his charges against Scarborough or his snit-fits. Making him the subject of our conversations is almost as good to Trump as making him the video camera’s focal point. All those op-ed commentaries denouncing him? Obviously, he’d like it better if the commentariat praised him, but if they’re going to criticize him, he’s content to annotate the insults and censures and repurpose them as offensive weapons. Remember what he did when Hillary Clinton called some of his supporters “deplorables”? He turned it into a badge of honor.
Trump has long loved stirring the pot with charges of conspiracy. This week the perpetrators of conspiracy are China, Obama, Scarborough and the ravings of QAnon. During the campaign, it was the alleged criminal hijinks of Hillary Clinton and his attacks on the question of Barack Obama’s citizenship. Baseless charges like these are the perfect refuge of a rhetorical arsonist like Trump who scorch the earth with controversy and confusion so nobody knows where to find the truth.
“Conspiracy is a ‘self-sealing’ narrative—it can never be disproven,” says Jennifer Mercieca, the author of the forthcoming Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump. “The logics of conspiracy cover up the lack of proof (they are hiding the proof) or disconfirming proof (they can’t be trusted to tell the truth). He who wields conspiracy is very powerful because he can point suspicion in any direction he likes.”
Has Trump really turned up the heat or have we just been sitting in his sauce pan so long it just feels that way? My intuition tells me that both his supporters and critics have grown numb to his previous rhetorical excesses and need for him cross new boundaries, violate new taboos, and break fresh panes of glass in order remain engaged. Then there’s the matter of his Trump’s recent dip in the polls, reportedly putting him in a “foul mood.” He knows he can’t charm his way back to better numbers, so he’s trying furiously to stay in the public eye by displaying more ferocity. And don’t forget the Biden problem. “Sleepy Joe,” as Trump often taunts him, has been hiding like a possum in his basement where Trump can’t get to him, and that’s got to frustrate him.
So he keeps harping on China as the responsible party for the 80,000-plus coronavirus deaths in the United States. While offering absolutely no proof for the charge, Trump obscures his own neglect of the pandemic and misdirects culpability to a foreign country. These techniques might not work on you, but that doesn’t bother Trump. His hardcore supporters are the target of the tweets, speeches, pressers and conspiracy theories. The more he does to make himself look persecuted and reviled by the “elites” and the press, the more heroic he appears to his base.
As the presidential campaign progresses, look for more of the same from Trump, with an emphasis on Biden, of course. His goal is a permanent schism in American society, a cold civil war, with lots of finger-pointing and yelling and demagoguery. Even if he loses in November, his audience will endure, and he’ll do whatever he needs to make sure we never take our eyes off of him.
I’ll be writing more about Jennifer Mercieca’s Demagogue for President when it’s published in early summer. (Highly recommended.) Send book recommendations to [email protected]. My email alerts blame my Twitter feed for losing China. My RSS feed is a prisoner of rational argument.