President Donald Trump began a week in which the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, with devastating consequences for public health and for the economy, by bashing NASCAR for banning Confederate symbols and Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace for not apologizing for … well, it wasn’t exactly clear what he thought Wallace should apologize for. At any rate, it put Trump squarely on the other side of the issue from NASCAR, and from (for example) most White state legislators in Mississippi, who recently voted to remove Confederate symbolism from their state flag.
My immediate reaction over on Twitter was to question whether Trump would be behaving any differently if he had given up on winning reelection and was instead trying to cultivate a fanatical group of loyal customers for future business endeavors. I then saw that smart political scientists in the Eastern time zone had beaten me to it:
“A crisis aligns incentives for a POTUS: doing what’s best for the country is also what’s best for reelection. Work the problem, everyone wins. That’s not always the case. Fixating on the Confederacy makes it seem like Trump’s goal isn’t reelection, but post-loss opportunities,” Matt Glassman, a senior fellow at Georgetown, tweeted.
And Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts, wrote: “Until now I had dismissed the “Trump WANTS to lose” hot takes out of hand but beginning to rethinking my position … “
I should emphasize: In politics, we should always be wary of questioning motives. The nature of political action is that what people say and do is what counts, not what they really think.
And in this case, we should be particularly hesitant. It’s tempting to leap to the conclusion that when things go badly for a president, it must reflect his or her deficits and shortcomings rather than economic or political realities. Thus when George H.W. Bush fell behind Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign, pundits were quick to find what they interpreted as signs that Bush didn’t really want a second term after all — he looked at his watch during a debate! — rather than accepting that Bush surely wanted to win but was basically doomed by a recession.
But when presidents act in ways that can’t be easily understood by analyzing the normal incentives of the job, it’s reasonable to ask what else might be going on. Trump has repeatedly taken fringe positions recently, whether by denouncing Black Lives Matter or scorning masks or deriding a cautious approach to easing pandemic restrictions. Or, for that matter, by ignoring or dismissing reports that Russia offered bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan. Why would he do that?
I’ve questioned for some time now whether Trump desperately craves reelection, and I think that’s the best framework here. It’s not that Trump doesn’t want to win. It’s that he’s not willing, as normal presidents are, to do whatever it takes. In particular, he doesn’t appear willing to do his job.
That’s the story of the pandemic, where Trump’s refusal since mid-April to do anything at all has been close to inexplicable. In fact, it’s so contrary to normal presidential behavior that the White House plan at this point is just to “hope Americans will grow numb to the escalating death toll and learn to accept tens of thousands of new cases a day,” The Washington Post reported on Monday. Presumably the campaign wishes it had more to work with — as Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent says, it’s a point that certainly makes the president look awful — but that’s all that Trump is giving them. And it’s the story on NASCAR, too. Trump simply isn’t willing to listen to advisers who want him to stick to poll-tested campaign themes.
Why? Trump’s whole life has taught him that he’s always right no matter how wrong he seems to be. He had plenty of setbacks in his business career, but if he was inclined to learn from them, that temptation was surely erased when he ran for president, was ridiculed by everyone for months, and won anyway. All politicians are at risk of overlearning the supposed lessons of their elections and to think of themselves as underdogs whom the experts wrote off. Trump has better reason than perhaps any other politician ever to make that mistake.
Beyond that is a question of ambition. It’s not really about how much ambition a politician has; it’s about what that ambition is about — the content of a politician’s ambition. Trump is unusual in that he seems focused more on private interest than public ambition. In this sense, choosing not to read briefing materials and to spend hours and hours watching cable TV news is similar to Trump’s decisions against divesting from his businesses or disclosing his tax returns. For Trump, the presidency is a prize he’s won that validates his decision to do whatever he wants, not a job that has obligations.
And that differs radically from previous presidents. Whether it was to change policy in order to improve the nation, or to serve the public, or to be personally powerful, normal presidents really wanted the job. Not just the election victory and the title. And most of those presidents worked hard and sacrificed for years in order to get it. They were under no illusion about the presidency being a position that entitles its occupant to do whatever he or she wants because they had to make so many compromises and commitments to get there — and because, as politicians, they worked with previous presidents and watched them carefully as they were frustrated by the limits of the job. Trump has never given any indication that he’s like that. And right now, it’s costing him — and the nation.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.