It’s safe to say we have an answer to the question, Is it true the president could stand in the middle of New York’s Fifth Avenue, shoot someone and not lose one supporter? Yes, it seemed for a long time, given nothing moved his approval numbers. No matter what he does (commit treason, for instance), and no matter what he says (for instance, extort the republic into voting for him or else), around 40 percent stands by him.
But a presumption lurked behind the question: that Donald Trump would be shooting live ammunition. What if he was shooting harmless blanks, though? What if his victims were paid to pretend to be dead? What if the whole thing was staged so a “billionaire outsider” only looked like he could break the rules, deny consequences and get away with murder? What if the power he had over his most hard-shelled supporters was predicated on an image of being untouchable—a super-white invincibility serving “real Americans” while punishing everyone else they believed deserved punishment?
If enemies do not fear Trump, there’s no point to Trump.
When put like that, the question isn’t whether he’d lose supporters. It’s whether his hypothetical show of power was based on reality. Most of us already knew it wasn’t. Most already knew Trump’s pathetic life has been one long con-job punctuated by lawsuits, bankruptcy and misery. But for a lot of people—those drawn to a glamorous image made for NBC’s “The Apprentice,” perhaps—Trump appeared to be a savior, an Übermensch chosen to do for them what they could not do for themselves, a führer fated to restore Real America’s glory while bringing despair to its enemies. After last week, though, who can doubt beneath his crusty orange exterior lies soft white flesh?
First, it was the Times report on his tax returns. It showed not only that he’s a serial tax avoider, an exemplar of everything rotten about the United States tax code, but an embarrassment of a businessman indebted by hundreds of millions of dollars and chained to failing properties. He’s a winner’s winner, he says, but in fact he’s losing. Then it was last Tuesday’s debate against Joe Biden. Trump never shares the limelight with critics, much less a rival. He demonstrated how fearful he is of the former vice president. He prattled constantly, trying to overpower Biden, even to the point of insulting both Biden’s dead serviceman son and his living recovering-addict son. Whenever he spoke directly into the TV camera, which he did often, Biden managed to shrink the president’s stage presence down to that of a toddler throwing a tantrum. Trump was already a small, trivial man. Next to Biden, however, he looked downright lilliputian.
Then came the news we’ve all been talking about. The president was hospitalized Friday night after testing positive for COVID the night before. The Washington press corps has been scrambling to establish a timeline—when he was diagnosed, when he was given oxygen (twice, it turns out), why doctors are pumping him with (in one case) experimental and otherwise powerful drugs, when he was in contact with others and if that’s the reason more than a dozen senators, senior officials and journalists are now sick. The White House has been trying to cover up the timeline as much as possible for the most important reason possible. If Trump’s supporters see his weakness, it’s over.
To liberals, this can’t be right. Weakness isn’t why you should vote against him. You should vote against him because he’s a lying, thieving, philandering sadist. I agree, but think about it from the view of “real Americans” who believe they are strong, because Trump is strong; who believe they are winners, because Trump is a winner; who believe they are feared, because Trump is feared. It’s one thing to cheer a bull charging through the china shop of Washington’s elite. It’s quite another to cheer a spent despot waving meekly from his Chevy Suburban. Trumpism is about super-white dominance so powerful it acts contemptuously toward face masks “as a sign of weakness,” according to the Times. A sick Trump is a weak Trump. A weak Trump is nothing to fear, and that’s the end. If enemies do not fear this president, there’s no point to this president.
To be sure, the president is going to try desperately to leave Walter Reed sooner so he can get back to appearing like a strong man. But the spell is broken. Just getting sick did him in. Trump’s allies, meanwhile, will try ginning up sympathy, but there’s no sympathy for a man seeing it as weakness, seeing decency as weakness, seeing all value systems as weakness. Morality isn’t about right and wrong for Trump, but instead a con played by losers cursed with bad genes to protect themselves from winners blessed with good genes. Nothing matters but power. That’s what was amazing about the idea of shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. There was nothing to get away with in the first place, though. Like all would-be tyrants, Trump is weak. His power is built on sand.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people. He’s a visiting assistant professor of public policy and liberal studies at Wesleyan University.