It’s as though in January 2017, Donald Trump was given a shiny, new car. The best, most beautiful car the world has ever seen. And in July 2020, the president made an important discovery about it.
It has a reverse gear.
It was an extra on the car he never thought he’d need – and certainly never intended to use. But on Monday, he put the car into reverse, and wrestle as he might with the gearstick and clutch, he now can’t stop the blasted thing from going backwards.
Or to change the metaphor – and borrow the language used this week by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to describe his Labour opponent – from the president this week there have been more flip-flops than Bournemouth beach.
Just to recap, masks – which the president used to deride as “politically correct” – are now an act of patriotism, and should always be worn when social distancing is impossible. Coronavirus, which until recently was being described in most instances as a bad case of the sniffles, is now something altogether more serious – and it is going to get worse before it gets better.
Two weeks ago the president was insisting that all schools had to reopen, or he would take away their funding. He’s now saying that, for some of the worst hit cities, that wouldn’t be appropriate – and appears much more empathetic towards parents wrestling with the decision about whether to allow their children resume in school education.
And the really big U-turn came last night on the Republican Convention in Jacksonville, Florida.
The president loves a crowd. A raucous, adoring crowd. The original plan had been to hold the event in Charlotte, North Carolina. But when the governor of that state said there would have to be social distancing, the president went ballistic, went after the governor, and announced huffily that the Republicans would go somewhere else. Jacksonville would be the venue for the tickertape and hoopla, and thousands of cheering and whooping Republicans.
Except it won’t be now.
It was a stunning and painful reverse, and one the president made with the heaviest of hearts.
The announcements have come on three consecutive nights of revitalised White House coronavirus briefings. In this iteration with the president flying solo, and not flanked by his medical advisers. But they have also been much more disciplined than when the president would spend a couple of hours at the lectern, musing on anything and everything – most memorably on whether disinfectant and sunlight should be injected into the body to treat coronavirus.
I was at that memorable briefing with the president, and I was back again for his briefing this Wednesday. This time around he was in and out in less than half an hour, stuck to the messages he wanted to deliver (OK, no-one had anticipated the bizarre foray into the legal difficulties facing Ghislaine Maxwell), and answered a handful of questions. He didn’t get riled. He didn’t get into fights. He did what he came to do. And then off.
All I would say is that Season 2 is nothing like as much fun as Season 1 – though the episodes are much shorter.
I sat discussing this one evening this week in the garden of someone closely involved in the doings of the administration. It was an insufferably humid evening and the thunder rolled around the city. We spent a time discussing the psychology of the president (yes, a common topic). And this person was making the point that he has an old-fashioned macho need never to appear weak. Even though he knows at times it would be smart to give ground and concede, that is unconscionable.
But if we are still playing pop psychology with the president’s brain – whose cognitive strengths we now all know: person, man, woman, camera, TV – there is one thing worse than being weak, and that is being a loser.
And though in public – for fear of looking weak – the president insists his campaign is winning, and the American people love him, and polls that show him sinking underwater are fake news, the reality is altogether more uncomfortable.
Let’s just take Florida, where Trump was to have made his Convention acceptance speech. It is the epicentre at the moment of the appalling surge in coronavirus cases. With its population of 21 million, last week it was diagnosing more new cases per day than the whole of the European Union (population 460 million). But Florida is also ground zero for US presidential elections. Just think Bush versus Gore in 2000.
It was a state Trump won comfortably in 2016. It was a state he thought he would breeze in November. But the latest Quinnipiac University poll has Democratic nominee Joe Biden 13 points ahead. Thirteen. That is massive. And there is a whole pile of other key swing states which show President Trump lagging behind.
What hasn’t changed in the past week is the science. You can be sure that his long-suffering public health advisors have been banging on about the same things like a broken gramophone. Masks, distancing, avoiding crowds. It may be that the president has had a Damascene conversion to listening to his doctors. Possible, but I have to say unlikely.
If we’re looking for a significant “thing” it is this. Last week, Trump fired his 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and installed a new one. And it appears Bill Stepien has sat the president down and given him the ice cold bucket of water. That the polls are awful, and going in the wrong direction; that all is not lost but quickly could spin out of control. That a change of direction and tone is urgently needed. Particularly when it comes to anything and everything to do with Covid-19.
It is worth inserting one proviso here. I don’t know Bill Stepien – although he gets very good reviews. But brilliant though he may be, there is a bit of a pattern of the president making a new appointment, and then for the next two or three weeks he does what he is told – but then reverts to going with his gut; going with his instinct. The things that he will tell you have served him best throughout his long and colourful career. But we are in new territory.
For three and a half years the president has been able to define his own reality; to bend and fashion facts to suit his own narrative. The coronavirus has been unimpressed by his efforts. This has been a foe like none that Donald Trump has faced. And he has had to bend to its will. Not the other way round.
What has happened this week is that what the polls are showing and what his scientists have been repeatedly calling for are totally aligned. And he really doesn’t want to be a loser in November.
The spectre of these 180s has brought much guffawing from liberal commentators. The man who only knows how to double down, now doubled up in the pain of these very public reverses. Oh happy days.
But they should be more cautious. The conversion may be insincere; may well be borne of polling necessity – but what a lot of Americans will see is their president behaving rationally and normally; making decisions consistent with the scale of the threat the American people are facing – and Americans are fearing. But, I hear you say, surely they won’t forget about all those things the president said in March and April when he played the pandemic down and urged the reopening of the US economy prematurely?
Well, all I would say is that the circus moves on quickly; everyone seems to have incredibly short memories. Who talks any more about Mueller? Or Russia? Or impeachment? The beam of the lighthouse doesn’t stay long in any one place. With our impatience for new developments, for new story lines, for plot twists, we seem to suffer collectively from attention deficit disorder. And this president understands that better than anyone.
Some will no doubt write that this has been the president’s worst week ever. If he wins in November it will come to be seen as his best.