It was not supposed to be a trick question, or even all that tricky. For any other candidate, it would have been the softest of softballs, the slowest of pitches. But when the Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt asked Donald Trump the other morning, “Mr. President, what is your second-term agenda? What are your top priorities?,” his inability to answer was one of the most revealing moments of his reëlection campaign so far. “I want to take where we left,” Trump said. “We were better than we were ever,” he added, wistfully conjuring the booming pre-pandemic America of his fantasies, where everybody had a job and the stock market was great. Facing uncontrolled death from the coronavirus and an economy that is cratering because of it, Trump is desperate for a do-over. Other than that, he had pretty much nothing to say about why he should be elected to a second term, although he took more than three hundred words to say it. The bottom line seemed to be that Trump is promising four more years of “jobs” and of stopping U.S. allies, especially Germany, from “ripping us off.” And that’s it.
This painful exchange, which even the Fox hosts eventually cut off, after a few cringe-inducing minutes, was little noted among the many whoppers, distortions, and outrages offered up by Trump this week. It wasn’t even the big news out of that particular Fox interview, the coverage of which rightfully focussed on the President’s absurd claims that the coronavirus is just “going away” and that schools should reopen because children are “almost immune” to COVID-19. Throughout the week, Trump’s near-delusional state about the pandemic has been on awkward display, most notably in his instant classic of an interview with the Axios journalist Jonathan Swan, whose simple but skeptical queries about the virus revealed a President unable to comprehend basic facts about the public-health crisis or devise a national plan for combatting it. “It is what it is,” Trump told Swan, when asked about the large, and growing, American death toll—a line that may well go down as one of his most chillingly callous.
But Trump’s struggle to answer such an important and straightforward question about what he would do in a second term should not be overlooked, because it goes to the heart of why his campaign— and the country that he nominally governs—is in such trouble. As an incumbent, Trump is certainly in a bind: he can hardly campaign on his record, when the United States is in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and close to a hundred and sixty thousand Americans are dead of the coronavirus. There’s only so much blame that Trump can deflect; this is a catastrophe that happened on his watch, and—no matter how many times he calls it the “China virus” or warns Americans that Joe Biden will turn the country into a godless hellscape—he knows it.
Trump’s vapid answer is more than a reflection of a political-messaging dilemma—it’s a sign of decline, both in terms of the President’s ability to respond cogently to a simple query and as a warning for American democracy, given that such a large segment of the electorate apparently finds it acceptable to support a leader whose only campaign selling point is himself. Is Trump’s inability to come up with something to say about the next four years a reflection of the fact that even he thinks he is going to lose? Perhaps, but it’s also a measure of how far Trump has descended into full “l’état, c’est moi”-ism. Running for reëlection without offering even a hint of a program is a sure indicator of at least aspirational authoritarianism.
The Trump of four years ago was a far more conventional candidate, at least in this one sense. He had a slogan of making America great again, and a platform, however objectionable or unrealistic, that went with it. He made campaign promises. He repeated them over and over. Some were highly specific and executable, and could even be said to constitute a coherent world view: Barack Obama was a terrible President who represented a decadent, globalized élite that is outsourcing your jobs and opening your borders to criminals—I will do the opposite. In the fall of 2016, Trump gave a speech called a “Contract with the American Voter,” in which he promised to withdraw from the Obama-era multinational trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to exit the Paris climate accord, and to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, all of which he did after he took office. One politically useful, and highly concrete, promise that Trump made during the 2016 campaign was to assure conservatives that he would pick federal judges and Supreme Court Justices from a Federalist Society-approved list. He stuck to that, too.
Of course, Trump made myriad other promises in 2016—and since—that he has not fulfilled, from building a border wall that Mexico would pay for, to revitalizing the American coal industry, to cutting middle-class taxes by thirty-five per cent and increasing G.D.P. by up to six per cent a year. None has happened, nor will they, now or ever. But the point is that he offered voters at least a semblance of an agenda. Once he took office, the campaign promises served as a constraint of sorts on a President who has had very few of them. Steve Bannon, who helped Trump win election and who controversially served as his chief strategist for part of 2017, was photographed in his White House office with a whiteboard that listed such Trump “pledges.” In his pre-coronavirus campaign-style rallies, Trump often spoke of his “promises made, promises kept.”
All of which makes the President’s determined absence of a second-term agenda as he campaigns now so striking. Remember: Trump knows these questions are coming, and he still has nothing to say. It’s not a mistake at this point, or a flub: it’s on purpose. In several previous interviews, in fact, Trump has been asked a version of the second-term question. Every time, he has stumbled. In late June, he told his Fox friend and confidant Sean Hannity that he should be reëlected because of his “experience,” in a hundred-and-forty-word salad of an answer. Given another chance a few days later, by the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Eric Bolling, Trump still could not respond, finally settling on the vague formulation that “we’ve done a lot, but we have a lot of things we can do.” Even now, more than a month later, Trump has not come up with a better answer, leading to the conclusion that he is either incapable of producing one or unwilling to do so. Or—and this is just as worrisome—he may feel no need to, confident that his loyal Republican base, which has not wavered through impeachment, plague, and recession, will support him no matter what he says and does. Recent polls confirm this: Trump’s approval rating today remains around forty per cent among the U.S. electorate, which is almost exactly what it has been for the vast majority of his tenure as President. Whatever the reasons, it appears that Trump is not even pretending anymore.