Things are looking down for the Donald.
For a long time, Republicans have brandished the same old narrative to try to scare their way into the White House.
Their candidates were presented as the patriarchs, protecting the house from invaders with dark skin.
With Nixon, it was the Southern Strategy, raising alarms about the dismantling of Jim Crow laws.
With Reagan, it was launching his 1980 campaign on fairgrounds near where the Klan murdered three civil rights activists.
With Bush senior, it was Willie Horton coming to stab you and rape your girlfriend.
With W. and Cheney, it was Qaeda terrorists coming back to kill us.
With Donald Trump, it was Mexican rapists and the Obama birther lie.
For re-election, Trump is sifting through the embers of the Civil War, promising to protect America from “troublemakers” and “agitators” and “anarchists” rioting, looting and pulling down statues that they find racially offensive. “They said, ‘We want to get Jesus,’” Trump ominously told Sean Hannity Thursday night.
But Trump is badly out of step with the national psyche. The actual narrative gripping America is, at long last, about white men in uniforms targeting black and brown people.
In the last election, Trump milked white aggrievement to catapult himself into the White House. But even Republicans today recognize that we have to grapple with systemic racism and force some changes in police conduct — except for our president, who hailed stop-and-frisk in the Hannity interview.
The other scary narrative is about our “protean” enemy, as Tony Fauci calls Covid-19, which Trump pretends has disappeared, with lethal consequences. With no plan, he is reduced to more race-baiting, calling the virus “the China plague” and the “Kung Flu.” Nasty nicknames don’t work on diseases.
The pathogen is roaring back in the South and the West in places that buoyed Trump in 2016. Texas, Florida and Arizona are turning into Covid Calamity Land after many residents emulated their president and scorned masks and social distancing as a Commie hoax.
Is Trump’s perverse Southern Strategy to send the older men and women who are a large part of his base to the I.C.U.?
The president showed off his sociopathic flair by demanding the repeal of Obamacare — just because he can’t stand that it was done by Barack Obama. Millions losing their jobs and insurance during a plague and he wants to eliminate their alternative? Willful maliciousness.
And this at the same time he has been ensuring more infections by lowballing the virus, resisting more testing because the numbers would not be flattering to him, sidelining Dr. Fauci and setting a terrible example.
The Dow fell 700 points on the news that Texas and Florida are ordering a Covid-driven last call, closing their bars again, and the virus is revivifying in 30 states.
In 2016, the mood was against the status quo, represented by Hillary Clinton. But now the mood is against chaos, cruelty, deception and incompetence, represented by Trump. In light of our tempestuous, vertiginous times, Joe Biden’s status quo seems comforting.
It is a stunning twist in history that the former vice president was pushed aside in 2016 by the first black president and put back in the game this year by pragmatic black voters.
Bill Clinton was needy; he played a game with voters called “How much do you love me?” Do you love me enough to forgive me for this embarrassing personal transgression, or that one?
But Trump has taken that solipsism to the stratosphere, asking rallygoers in Tulsa to choose him over their health, possibly their lives, recklessly turning a medical necessity into a tribal signifier. I wasn’t surprised that so many seats there were empty, but that so many were filled.
In a rare moment of self-awareness, Trump whinged to Hannity about Biden: “The man can’t speak and he’s going to be your president ’cause some people don’t love me, maybe.”
It’s not only the virus that Trump is willfully blind about. A Times story that broke Friday evening was extremely disturbing about Trump’s love of Vladimir Putin. American intelligence briefed the president about a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offering bounties to Taliban-linked insurgents for killing coalition troops in Afghanistan, including Americans. Yet Trump has still been lobbying for Putin to rejoin the G7.
Trump had a chance, with twin existential crises, to be better after his abominable performance in his first three years. But then, we’ve known all along that he is not interested in science, racial harmony or leading the basest elements of his base out of Dixie and into the 21st century. Yes, the kid from Queens enjoys his newfound status as a son of the Confederacy.
A Wall Street Journal editorial Thursday warned that he could be defeated because he has no message beyond personal grievances and “four more years of himself.”
But Trump has always been about Trump. And the presidency was always going to distill him to his Trumpiest essence.
I asked Tim O’Brien, the Trump biographer, what to expect as the man obsessed with winning faces humiliating rejection.
“He will descend further into abuse, alienation and authoritarianism,” O’Brien said. “That’s what he’s stewing on most of the time, the triple A’s.”
Inside the campaign, advisers believe disappointing attendance at the rally shows genuine fear of the coronavirus and the reality of President Trump’s sliding poll numbers.
Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence had canceled plans at the last minute to speak at an outdoor overflow rally that was almost entirely empty, despite claims of nearly one million people registering for tickets to attend the event in Tulsa, Okla., and the president’s false boast of never having an empty seat at one of his events.
The president, who had been warned aboard Air Force One that the crowds at the arena were smaller than expected, was stunned, and he yelled at aides backstage while looking at the endless rows of empty blue seats in the upper bowl of the stadium, according to four people familiar with what took place. Brad Parscale, the campaign manager who had put the event together, was not present.
Mr. Pence spoke just after 6:30 p.m. in Tulsa and then left, the cue for Mr. Trump to come on. But there was a delay. Mr. Trump’s deputy chief of staff, Dan Scavino, peeked out from behind black curtains to scan the fan-free seats in the top rows.
Mr. Trump eventually entered the arena for a meandering performance in which he excoriated the “fake news” for reporting on health concerns before his event, used racist language to describe the coronavirus as the “Kung Flu” and spent more than 15 minutes explaining away an unflattering video clip of him gingerly descending a ramp after his commencement speech at West Point.
By the end of the rally, Mr. Trump’s mood had improved, advisers said. But after he left the stage, the fight seemed to have left him, at least temporarily. Leaving the arena, he wasn’t yelling. Instead, he was mostly muted.
When he landed back at the White House and walked off Marine One, his tie hung untied around his neck. He waved to reporters, with a defeated expression on his face, holding a crumpled red campaign hat in one hand.
Exactly what went wrong was still being dissected on Sunday. But a broad group of advisers and associates acknowledged to one another that Mr. Trump had not been able to will public opinion away from fears about the spread of the coronavirus in an indoor space. And they conceded that myriad polls showing Mr. Trump’s eroded standing were not fake, and that he might be on course to lose to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee, in November.
Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law who serves as the de facto campaign manager, and who was involved in the decision to choose Tulsa as the host city, was not among the group of advisers with the president at the event. But he will be among those to whom the president turns to figure out what rallies look like going forward.
In a statement, Mr. Parscale, the campaign manager who many advisers singled out for the overhyped numbers, claimed the reports about TikTok users and Korean pop music fans foiling attendance at the rally were inaccurate, and even raised the possibility of not allowing the news media to attend events in the future.
“Leftists and online trolls doing a victory lap, thinking they somehow impacted rally attendance, don’t know what they’re talking about or how our rallies work,” Mr. Parscale said. “Registering for a rally means you’ve RSVP’d with a cellphone number and we constantly weed out bogus numbers, as we did with tens of thousands at the Tulsa rally, in calculating our possible attendee pool.”
Instead, he blamed the news media for the low turnout.
“The fact is that a week’s worth of the fake news media warning people away from the rally because of Covid and protesters, coupled with recent images of American cities on fire, had a real impact on people bringing their families and children to the rally,” he said.
Campaign officials on Sunday privately admitted that many people who had signed up to attend the event were not supporters but online tricksters. One campaign adviser claimed that “troll data” was still useful, claiming it would help the campaign avoid the same pitfall in the future.
The adviser said that the data could be put into the system to “tighten up the formula used to determine projected attendance for rallies.”
In an interview, Mr. Parscale said the empty arena was not his fault, and that local law enforcement in Tulsa had overreacted, making it difficult for supporters to gain entry. He claimed to have thousands of emails from supporters who tried to get into the Bank of Oklahoma Center and were turned away, but he did not share those messages or names of supporters.
And he shrugged off the rumors about his demise, claiming he had been fired 85 weeks in a row.
But unlike most situations in which Mr. Trump’s advisers have tried to keep certain information from him — such as the fact that Mr. Biden outraised him in the month of May — or put a rosy sheen on it, the president saw for himself the empty seats in Oklahoma.
Several White House officials called the rally a disaster, and an unforced error that heightened tensions among some of the president’s government advisers and his campaign aides. What’s more, Mr. Trump’s White House advisers had repeatedly cautioned campaign aides against announcing an added appearance at an outdoor space, advice that was ignored as Mr. Parscale and campaign surrogates talked about it publicly.
The event does not portend additional large Trump rallies this summer, people familiar with the discussions said. The campaign had hoped to use the Tulsa event as a reset after the president’s slide in the polls in the wake of his administration’s failures responding to the coronavirus, and after his stoking of racial tensions amid nationwide protests over police brutality prompted by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
For days before the rally, Mr. Trump was giddy about his first arena outing since March 2, telling one interviewer after another how big it would be based on the numbers that Mr. Parscale had cited publicly.
Mr. Parscale and others believed the event would demonstrate a real pent-up demand for Mr. Trump’s appearances — one the campaign has insisted exists. But some advisers privately questioned the data even before the event, and they feared the Tulsa rally was setting the team up for failure.
Now, some White House officials said the campaign was being dishonest about what had gone wrong, and they conceded that many of the president’s older supporters had decided attending the rally was too risky amid coronavirus fears that Mr. Trump has repeatedly played down.
Veteran campaign hands in both major political parties were highly skeptical of the Trump operation’s claims that one million people had signed up even before the rally.
Outside advisers to the president said his team was fielding calls from nervous donors and Republican lawmakers, who were asking whether the poorly attended rally indicated problems that were too big to fix with just over four months until Election Day.
It also was not clear if there would be a personnel switch because of the disastrous optics, but some officials recalled what happened in 2017, after an event in Arizona that did not go as Mr. Trump had hoped. George Gigicos, one of the original campaign hands and his rally organizer, was fired by the president.
Doug Heller, the executive director of Consumer Watchdog, said Trump is the “most egregious, almost comical example” of the disparity between what the average American faces when going through bankruptcy and the “ease with which the very rich can move in and out of bankruptcy.”
.. “Under the American bankruptcy laws, if you end up in bankruptcy because you’re struggling with divorce or medical payments or a sudden change of income, it’s a disaster. If you fail miserably with huge dollars involved then you just need some accountants to rework your books,” Heller said.
.. “There’s that old saying, ‘If you owe your banks a little, you’re at their mercy. If you owe the banks a lot, the banks are at your mercy. They saw the best way for him to repay the money was to keep the Donald afloat.”
.. Donald struck a deal with the banks to hand over half his ownership, and half of the equity, in the casino in exchange for a lower interest rate and more time to pay off his debt. He sold off his beloved Trump Princess yacht and the Trump Shuttle airplane to make his payments, and his creditors put him on a budget, putting a cap on his personal spending.
.. He also had the humiliation of having some bankers deciding how much money he could spend — the numbers are just astonishing — the amount of his monthly budget,” LoPucki said.
.. banks would often agree to lose millions in reorganizations like Trump’s to prevent the massive losses they would incur if they foreclosed on the property.
“Banks will take considerable haircuts,” Pottow said. “It’s sort of like you have a sick patient so you cut off a couple toes to stop the gangrene. Now he’s missing a few toes, but he’s still alive.”
.. “Here’s a guy who’s failed so miserably so many times and it’s not as though he had to claw his way back after seven years in credit hell. He just said. ‘OK, this isn’t my problem anymore.’ For him, it’s just been a platform to the next money-making scheme,”
.. In 2004 Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts Inc. filed for voluntary bankruptcy after accumulating $1.8 billion in debt.
.. “In 2004 is where he lost control of his name. One rule when you have a name like Trump is you never let anyone own it and control it. He got into such a bad spot here that he ended up with others owning and controlling his name. They can do what they want once they own it,” LoPucki said.
.. Shortly after the proceedings, Trump told CNN’s Geri Willis that his personal fortune would not be affected. “This is a very small portion of my net worth. It’s less than 2 percent,” he said.
.. in 2008, so too did Trump’s real estate holdings. Trump Entertainment and his affiliated companies had $2.06 billion in assets and was $1.74 billion in debt.
.. LoPucki said it was very unusual for anyone to have that many large businesses go through bankruptcy. Most of the debt Trump incurred was through bonds that were sold to the public.
“People knew who Donald Trump was and for that reason were willing to trust the bonds, and they got burned,” LoPucki said. “The people who invested with him or based on his name lost money, but he himself came out pretty well.“