Even close allies of Donald Trump are flummoxed about why he hadn't grasped earlier in the Covid-19 pandemic that it was in his own best interests to "at least pantomime a sense of command over the crisis or convey compassion for the millions of Americans impacted by it," according to The Washington Post.
Part of the answer, per the report, was "his almost pathological unwillingness to admit error." But another factor was the existence of "a positive feedback loop of overly rosy assessments and data from advisers and Fox News." Trump, a malignant narcissist, is known to lash out at aides who provide him bad news so it appears that they've fed him a steady diet of the kind of Pollyannaish stories that are a mainstay of the conservative media's coverage of the pandemic, and of his regime's response to it.
Trump is running a historically awful campaign for re-election. At present, his twin pitches for a second term are his ability to pass a rudimentary test designed to diagnose dementia and a promise to deploy thousands of unidentifiable and poorly trained federal paramilitaries to American cities, against the protests of state and local officials, in the name of protecting statues and federal buildings from vandalism.
For anyone who consumes a balanced media diet, these strategic choices are inexplicable. While it's true that as we approach 150,000 mostly avoidable deaths from the pandemic and millions continue to file for unemployment, he doesn't have a lot to run on, a competent candidate would make an effort to show that he understands how this crisis is impacting people and demonstrate that he's focused on containing the outbreak and rebuilding–whether or not it's true. This is politics 101.
Polls find that Trump is losing to former Vice President Joe Biden on both of the quixotic issues he's chosen to litigate the race; more voters question his cognitive abilities and physical stamina than do Biden's, and while a majority of Americans oppose the removal of Civil War memorials, Biden is nonetheless more trusted to "effectively handle law enforcement and criminal justice issues," AKA "law and order." And polls aside, Democrats cleaned Republicans' collective clock running on healthcare against Trump's argle-bargle about invading refugee caravans in the 2018 midterms, long before the pandemic hit.
But what seems like an incomprehensible strategy on its face makes perfect sense when you consider that, according to multiple reports, Donald Trump is an avid consumer of conservative media who tends to be impervious to advice from experienced Republican campaign hands. And it's becoming increasingly clear that he's been led astray by the conservative press.
I'm sure that if you look hard, you could find a conservative commentator or two who acknowledge the existence of peaceful protesters standing against systemic discrimination in policing. But you'd have to really look for them. The overwhelming majority of right-wing discourse about these protests is premised on the belief that everyone out in the streets are rioting, looting or engaging in vandalism. It is also a given in these circles that the protests are motivated by Marxism or a desire to destroy the "American way of life" or whatever other fanciful idea occurs to the conservative commentariat–anything other than racial injustice.
That discourse leads to a significant reality-gap. While there were scattered instances of vandalism and rioting early on, real reporters on the ground in cities across the country consistently describe mostly peaceful protests, with small numbers of people occasionally crossing the line and damaging property.
Meanwhile, those of us who aren't ensconced within the right-wing media bubble have been alarmed and appalled at an endless stream of reports–almost always accompanied by viral videos–of unprovoked police violence against reporters, legal observers and of course protesters who were only "guilty" of refusing to disperse when ordered–or in many cases, guilty of nothing at all. That police brutality has contributed to an extraordinary shift in public opinion toward the Movement for Black Lives and away from Trump's preferred narrative of what's happening in American cities.
A similar dynamic may be driving Trump's mystifying decision to make his ability to pass a simple dementia test–and his bragging that the doctors who administered it were shocked that he passed–into a news story. It's the kind of attack that would be condemned as dirty and vicious if it were delivered by an opponent.
For those of us outside the conservative epistemic bubble, Joe Biden stutters, is prone to gaffes and suffers from occasional "senior moments" when he flubs a date or gets a number wrong. Most of us have had an older relative or acquaintance who was perfectly sharp and entirely "there," as Biden pretty clearly is, but who had similar lapses. (My late grandmother did eventually develop dementia in her mid-90s, but she started having those "senior moments" 20 years earlier, when she was about the same age as Biden.)
While this line of attack is born of desperation as the Trump campaign has failed to land solid punches on Biden–a white man who's been around forever and is well known as a moderate, mainstream Democrat–it's also a matter of faith in the conservative press that the "liberal media" are covering up Biden's dementia, and that Trump would have a good chance of turning his campaign around if only he manages to expose the former Vice President as the drooling dotard they claim he is. As Greg Sargent reported a couple of weeks back, "Fox News has been relentlessly pushing the line that Joe Biden might be suffering from dementia."
It would be wrong to attribute Trump's stunning decline in support among seniors–long a reliably GOP-leaning constituency that he needs to remain competitive in the must-win state of Florida–to these hamfisted attacks on Biden's cognitive acuity. That decline is clearly a result of his gross mismanagement of the pandemic, and of his party's consistent refrain that we must sacrifice the elderly and infirm on the altar of the stock market. But those attacks certainly can't be helping.
The carefully constructed alternate reality presented by the conservative media is a double-edged sword. They keep the Republican base engaged by maintaining a constant state of anxiety about the horrors of immigrants, socialists, modest expansions of public health insurance, tax increases on the wealthy, etc. But while savvier Republican operatives rely more on polling and focus groups to devise strategy, Trump's ego drives him–and the sycophants he surrounds himself with–to embrace their partisan propaganda as reality. And that appears rendered him and his campaign incapable of making the substantive and enduring course-correction that they so desperately need.