June 22, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Trump’s Greatest Con: Believe Me, I’m Strong
Caving on his sadist border policy did something new. It exposed Trump's base to his profound weakness.
Among those who pay attention to national politics, President Trump’s weakness is nothing new. Anyone who knows anything can see that his fury signifies nothing.
To his supporters, though, it was likely surprising to see him cave to bipartisan demands to end a sadist family-separation policy that confiscated babies from immigrant parents seeking political asylum. So much so, many supporters believed Trump was the victim of an outcry to stop making innocent kids suffer.
The president fears nothing more than appearing weak. This is not (only) about ego. This is about utility. How do you inspire enough confidence in someone to get them to hand over their money, trust, and votes? Appearing strong is more important to the con artist than actually being strong. Appearances are truly all that matter.
The appearance of strength has been Trump’s greatest political asset, but that has always depended on television media playing along. TV media stopped playing along—could not continue to play along—when images and audio emerged of toddlers wailing inconsolably for their moms and dads. Once the TV media stopped playing along, the president was on his own. The president—surprise!—looked isolated and weak.
And he did all on his own.
A senior adviser told Axios: “He’s doing it to press the case with Congress. He’s moved personally, but also doesn’t want to look weak. He feels boxed in, is frustrated and knows it’s bad politics—but also understands it’s not a fight he can back down from.”
I have argued a few times that the president’s weakness will be his undoing. The appearance of strength is the truly only thing that matters to his constituency. They don’t care that he’s a fraud. They don’t care that he’s corrupt. They don’t care about budgets. That don’t care about values. They don’t care about threats to democracy.
They do care about the president punishing people whom they believe do not belong in the American franchise, people whom they believe threaten the privilege, status and power that generally come from being white. This week, they saw something new: Their Great White Hope was not only bloodied. He was knocked out cold.
To be honest, I have always worried that my thesis—that the president’s weakness will be his undoing—was itself weak. Time and time again, after every documented revelation that this guy can’t negotiate himself out of a brown paper bag, I thought: this is it. This is the moment. But then: nothing. Worse: his supports made excuses for him! No amount of empirical evidence was sufficient to snapping the spell. Given the visibility of the border crisis, and the blowback’s intensity, this time feels different.
So it’s with some trepidation, I offer the same thesis, but with a change. It’s not so much that Trump voters will turn on him. As a wise Twitter follower suggested to me, they need him more than he needs them. But needing him isn’t the same as turning out for him. In brief, if my thesis has merit, we’re going to find out in November.
The president believed punching down would turn out the base for the midterms. Bragging about tax cuts is, for sadists, unsatisfying. Much better to show strength, and the clearest way of doing that is causing vulnerable people to suffer misery.
But that depended on all things being equal, on the media equating a barbarous border policy with the united liberal rage against it. Indeed, there has been some attempts to equate them (the New York Times tried, for instance). But false equivalences could not contain the bipartisan agony of listening to babies bawling for their mothers.
By choosing sadism, the president alienated allies, enraged the opposition to the point of hysteria, and exposed his weakness, thus sucking the gas out of the engine that mobilizes his base. Sure, these geriatric fascists need him, they want him to be president. But that will be the case whether or not they turn out to vote in the fall.
To be sure, Trump will carry on with the con to the end. Last night, he said:But it’s too late.
Once doubt takes root, there’s no going back.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.