On July 21, a day on which America would record 1,127 deaths from COVID-19 — its highest number since late May — and over 65,000 new infections, President Trump tweeted the following: “Looking forward to live sports, but any time I witness a player kneeling during the National Anthem, a sign of great disrespect for our Country and our Flag, the game is over for me!”
For Trump — whose political brand depends on such inflammatory chestnuts — the tweet recalled his 2017 declaration that NFL owners should respond to kneeling players by saying, “‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired.'” Back then, the comment dominated the news, inflamed the controversy, and led the league — fearful of Trump’s clout and the loss of conservative fans — to devise new rules surrounding the anthem. And Trump received what he presumably craves: the sense that he is at once the origin and subject of our national narrative.
But with the country now routed by a disease that will not “just disappear,” as Trump predicted it would in early July, the tactic has lost its edge. Instead of igniting a debate around athletes’ supposed disrespect of the flag, Trump’s recent kneeling tweet felt laughably out of touch, leading to comments like “Why aren’t you… encouraging people to wear a mask and practice social distancing[?]” It’s not just a valid question; amid a historic crisis, it’s essentially the only question.
The culture-war nuggets Trump wants to feed us are no longer what the public — drained financially, medically, and emotionally by COVID-19 — has the appetite to consume. In the past week and a half alone, he has accused Barack Obama of treason, called his own niece a criminal, and asserted that Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, wants to abolish — deep breath — the police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the bail system, the second amendment, and intriguingly, the suburbs. None of these charges caused much of a ripple beyond Trump’s Twitter feed. And until the virus subsides — likely sometime next year, regardless of who is president — that pattern is likely to hold.
Trump seems to be grasping this, holding his first coronavirus press conference in weeks on the same day as his anti-kneeling tweet. Although his performance was drowsy, muddled, and teeming with untruths, his newfound willingness to address the crisis showed that for perhaps the first time since he took office, he isn’t driving the news — the news is driving him. His admission that “Florida is in a little tough or in a big tough position” was a reflection of the big tough position he is also in: since late March, his average approval rating has dropped six points, to 40 percent; approval of his handling of the virus, meanwhile, has fallen through the floor.
Clearly, Trump has little concern for the public’s health; if he did, as my colleague Ryan Cooper pointed out months ago, he would have acted decisively when the disease began to spread. Trump’s greater concern is likely that he cannot rally supporters and win undecided voters — especially in COVID-ravaged southern states — when they are worried about their lives and livelihoods. To defeat Biden in November, Trump needs to feed upon the country’s resentments as he did so ably in 2016. He needs both sides to get stirred up when he opines on football players or rails against “fake news” or poses with cans of beans. In short, he needs us to play along. But that’s far less likely to happen when swaths of the nation are caught in the virus’ grip.
What can a provocateur do when his usual provocations grow stale? If Trump’s use of federal force in Portland over the past week is any indication, he will shift to unusual provocations. His quick, cynical embrace of the “law and order” tag may now be his only move: flailing against COVID, unable to conduct rallies or weaponize social media, he is portraying himself as the country’s best defense against the loathsome “Radical Left.” This is familiar territory for him, of course; last November, for instance, he decried New York’s early release of “900 Criminals, some hardened & bad,” and added, “The Radical Left Dems are killing our cities.” But it’s a role he may have to play with increasing vigor if he is to dig himself out from the double-digit hole he is stuck in against Biden, who, Trump warns, “will destroy our Country as we know it.”
Whatever this president does, the coronavirus will persist until there is a vaccine — which, Trump promises with hyperbolic vagueness, is “coming a lot sooner than anybody thought possible.” That fact — more than anything he tweets or directs his proxy forces to do — is likely to drive the national conversation between now and Election Day. Thanks to Trump’s no-show leadership early in the COVID fight, it is a problem of his own making. He must now figure out how to win re-election when a thing like a kneeling athlete has been revealed to be what it always was: nothing worth getting that worked up about.
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