President Donald Trump has surveyed the smoking ruins of his re-election campaign—dogged by disastrous polls, beset by internal conflict, regarded with growing horror by Republican elites—and proposed a reason for this failure. Trump believes that he has not been Trumpy enough.
According to a report by Jonathan Swan in Axios, the president has been telling friends that he regrets following moderate advice from his son-in-law Jared Kushner and needs to “stick closer to his own instincts.” One of Swan’s sources summarized Trump’s determination this way: “No more of Jared’s woke s---.”
Now that they mention it, it seems obvious. Trump has become so politically correct, so coy about his true beliefs.
Yes, he unleashed riot police and tear gas on peaceful protesters in front of the White House.
Yes, he tweeted videos of black men attacking white people, as well as the video of a supporter yelling “White power!”
Yes, he accused a Black Lives Matters leader of treason and described the painting of “Black Lives Matter” on Fifth Avenue as “a symbol of hate.”
But still, his public personality has become so diluted and constrained. If only he followed his instincts and spoke from his gut, the campaign would be okeydokey in short order.
We are accustomed to vanity and self-delusion from the president. But this is really something. Trump has been untethered from sound, constraining advice for much of his first term. Now, faced with the disastrous consequences of his authenticity, he tries to place the blame on one or two scattered moments of sanity. Only those who want to see Trump’s political career crash and burn would agree with his analysis. And oh, by the way: GREAT INSIGHT, MR. PRESIDENT!
The last few weeks have provided additional evidence of Trump’s primary, driving instinct: to avoid the appearance of weakness. He wants, above all, to be seen as a strong man.
More than an ideology or a governing philosophy, Trumpism is a certain view of strength. It is strong to crush those who challenge you—even if they are average citizens and you are president of the United States. It is strong to strike back twice as hard and below the belt. It is strong to dominate and humiliate your enemies.
And what is the opposite of strength? Mercy is weakness. Empathy is weakness. Changing in response to pressure (or reason) is weakness.
Another recent controversy demonstrates this strange conception of strength. Advocating and demonstrating the use of a face mask during a pandemic is a morally compulsory commitment by a public servant to the common good. And if presidential leadership accomplishes anything, Trump’s public wearing of a mask would save some lives. But this is something Trump has refused to do. When asked his reason, the president said he “didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” Trump clearly views any concession—even a concession to common sense and common decency—as a form of surrender.
There is something infantile about this conception of strength, and in a literal sense. The overwhelming desire to dominate others, even when that means hurting them, is often rooted in some deep hurt of childhood. But such an explanation is not a justification for needlessly jeopardizing the lives of others. Or for adopting the ethics of a low-level member of a crime family.
To beat Trump, Joe Biden will need to demonstrate that the president is pathetically weak even by his own standards. His handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been lethally incompetent as well as economically ruinous. His increasingly overt racism is threatening the unity and justice of the country. His incoherent combination of naiveté and bullying has squandered America’s global influence and standing.
But if Biden hopes for something higher—for national healing as well as electoral victory—he needs to provide a superior definition of national strength. He must show how we are stronger and healthier when we care for each other—demonstrated by mutual service and mutual patience. He must show that kindness is not weakness (or “wokeness”); it is the default value of responsible citizenship. He must show principles when principle demands and change when change requires. He must show that a diverse nation can still find common moral purposes, rooted in the glorious but unfulfilled promise of our national creed.
A lot of history—a deadly pandemic, a profound economic crisis, a racial reckoning —has been placed into the hands of ... Joe Biden. It is not the choice I would have made. But we need him to be strong.