After mocking people for wearing masks, refusing to publicly wear one himself and holding rallies and gatherings where social distancing was not required, President Donald Trump has shifted his tone.
He has canceled his convention activities in Jacksonville, Florida, after moving the events from North Carolina when that state’s governor raised public health concerns about such a large indoor gathering.
He has resumed briefings, ostensibly about the coronavirus, after canceling them and trying to move on to other matters, as if the virus would simply vanish if he sufficiently ignored it.
Trump is in real trouble. With the election passing the 100-day-away milestone, he is down in the polls, people don’t trust or approve of his handling of the pandemic and he faces a real uphill battle to reelection.
Apparently, the reality of his dire straits has begun to pierce his inner circle of perpetual affirmation. There is a reality lurking that can’t be lied away. If the election were held today, he wouldn’t win.
But Trump is a political chameleon: He can alter himself to suit his environment, to reflect it. He may not be fond of apologies, but he is open to course reversal, for survival.
Indeed, that is the maleficent marvel of it all: He has changed his position to the opposite of what it once was and argued that the new direction is the one he’s always embraced. Only a person with an utter contempt for the truth could repeatedly take this tact.
We need look no further than 2016 to see how Trump operates when he is desperate and in trouble, trying to woo the votes he needs, and how hollow and nakedly political his efforts can be.
In 2016, after calling Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists and promising to build a wall between the United States and Mexico — one that he would somehow force the Mexican government to finance — he posed with taco bowls on Cinco De Mayo and wrote on Twitter: “I love Hispanics!”
He got over a quarter of the Hispanic vote, yet once elected, he continued to demonize immigrants and tried to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for young immigrants known as “Dreamers.”
His administration’s negligence and lack of preparedness in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria undoubtedly led to more deaths than there would have been under a competent president.
And the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, under which thousands of migrant children, sometimes infants, were taken from their parents, flourished.
In 2016, when the “Access Hollywood” tape on which Trump is heard bragging about sexually assaulting women was made public, he issued a rare half-apology, saying, “I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them.” He would later deem his assault claims “locker room talk.”
But shortly after winning the election he started suggesting that the voice on the tape wasn’t his, and after his inauguration, according to The New York Times, he told a Republican senator that “he wanted to investigate the recording that had him boasting about grabbing women’s genitals.”
In 2016, Trump finally admitted that Barack Obama was born in the United States. It is important to note that he didn’t in fact apologize for years of racist birtherism during which he insisted otherwise. Instead, he once again attempted to shift blame, saying: “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it. I finished it. You know what I mean.”
But after Trump was elected he revived his questioning of Obama’s place of birth and the authenticity of his birth certificate.
Trump is an incendiary figure. He uses fear and division as his devices. He believes they work … until they don’t. When forced — by shifts in sentiment by his core supporters, or those on the margins he needs, or in the face of possible loss and defeat — he will say and do whatever it takes to get back in the good.
But none of the change is ever real. This man doesn’t evolve. He doesn’t grow. He doesn’t grow up.
He is stuck and stunted. He is a creature of instinct and that instinct is base and animalistic, survival-centered, without core conviction of a prevailing character.
The way Trump handled — and failed to handle — the pandemic in its early months no doubt led to the deaths of people who should not have died. He was thinking of himself, his political prospects, and nothing else.
American lives were collateral damage.
Now, his calculus has finally shifted: It’s hurting him more to ignore the virus than to engage it. So he has done a 180 and now wants to pretend to be in charge, mature and not completely dismissive of the science that could save us.
But even now, this is not about the American people but about politics. Should he prevail in November, the true Trump will no doubt reemerge.