Donald Trump has become boring.
For the president, this is the worst possible sin. He can handle infamy and hatred—indeed, he relishes being loathed almost as much as he relishes being loved. Both are, after all, attention. But being ignorable, tedious, and boring is the kiss of death for a politician like Trump. If he has made a central promise to his supporters—and to the public at large—it is to entertain. Now he is violating that commitment.
Trump can’t even turn out a crowd anymore; in the era of COVID-19, the president’s supporters voted with their feet when he summoned them to an indoor arena in Tulsa, Oklahoma, resulting in photographs of the president looking downtrodden. “When he landed back at the White House and walked off Marine One,” The New York Times reported, “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.”
The president’s old tricks aren’t working either. He can’t seem to get people fired up about the supposed “deep state” coup attempt against him. His poll numbers are falling, and his numbers against the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, look dreadful. Republicans now fear not only Trump’s own loss, but the loss of the Senate as well.
And Trump’s reaction to it all has been typically self-absorbed and, well, uninteresting. It’s one thing to remind people that the economy is great under one’s watch, quite another to remind people that the economy used to be great under one’s watch—a little bit like Icarus running for reelection on having once flown high. It’s one thing to boast of having done a lot of coronavirus testing, quite another to run on whining that there has been too much coronavirus testing.
When the president is outrageous these days, many people can’t even be bothered to muster outrage. On Sunday morning, Trump approvingly retweeted (and then un-retweeted) a video in which a supporter of his shouted “White power!” several times. The clamor was lucky to make the Sunday talk shows, before fading away by midday. Even grotesque offensiveness is old news.
And Trump knows how important it is to entertain. He has admitted that he has tried to create his persona so as to grab attention. At a 2018 rally in Pennsylvania, in fact, he once riffed that the reason he didn’t act more “presidential” was because it would turn away audiences. “You know . . . how easy it is to be ‘presidential’?” he asked. “But you all would be out of here right now. You’d be so bored. . . .If I came [here] like a stiff, you guys wouldn’t be here tonight.”
Indeed, Trump’s instincts about the presidency rely pervasively on the idea that the president should be entertaining. The country, in Trump’s view, needs to be constantly entranced by the president, or at least the president—if he is to be effective—needs to constantly be entrancing the country.
And Trump has long known as well what happens when one becomes boring. As the New York Times television critic James Poniewozik wrote in his book, Audience of One, describing how Trump’s obsession with television made and shaped his presidency:
[Trump] knew what the red light [of the television camera] wanted, because it was just like him. It didn’t care what you had given it before, only what you would give it next. If you didn’t have anything for it, you stopped existing until you did … If he kept the red light sated, it would help him. The red light put you into the unreal estate of TV, the place that was everywhere, that was better than the real world. When it turned off, you died, a little bit.
Yes, the Trump show still has its core fans, and a lot of them don’t seem to notice that Season 4 just doesn’t have the zest and sparkle of the previous seasons. But outside the fandom, a lot of people have stopped watching. And the ratings are down.
The White House seems to be road testing some efforts to revive the ratings. Most prominently, Trump has zeroed in on debates over the removal of Confederate monuments and other statues of historical figures with racist legacies. He sent out 15 tweets broadcasting efforts by the U.S. Park Police to identify protesters who vandalized a statue of Andrew Jackson that sits near the White House—some of which he then retweeted days later. And he signed an angry executive order on “Protecting American Monuments,” which had little practical effect but lambasted “left-wing extremists” as adherents to Marxism. Announcing how “tough” his administration has been toward protests over statues, he described to Fox News’ Sean Hannity his feeling that “we should let people know we’ve arrested a lot of people.” Meanwhile, Axios reports that the Trump campaign is attempting to tie Biden to these protests by suggesting that the former vice president is too weak to keep statues from being toppled—a somewhat strange argument, given that the statues have come down under Trump’s own watch.
All this adds up to an effort to turn the ongoing debates over statues and protests into a culture-war flash point—an issue that conservatives can point to in justifying a vote to reelect the president, lest the Marxist Democrats take over and all our statues suffer as a result.
This might have been effective were statue supporters a major voting bloc. But with more than 120,000 Americans dead from a pandemic, current COVID-19 rates exploding, and 40 million people having lost their jobs, it’s a little hard to imagine that the elevation of the problems of dead Confederates over those of living Americans is going to excite a great many voters. At a time when the country is experiencing not just the pandemic and the resulting economic collapse but also a genuine outpouring of anger about racial inequities, the president is not merely swimming against the tide of public opinion; he is doing so on a matter that seems like a non sequitur. And it’s hard to revive interest in yourself by spouting non sequiturs.
The aggressive defense of statues isn’t the only tactic Trump is using in his efforts to regain attention. As the election approaches, he’s also begun to make noise about voter fraud—aggressively enough that Twitter itself has stepped in to mark some of his tweets on the subject as incorrect. In a representative tweet from June 22, he warned of a “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION,” spreading a meritless claim that foreign countries could somehow use mail-in voting to slip in fraudulent ballots. “IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”
Trump’s complaints about supposed fraudulent votes aren’t new, of course: He falsely announced that votes from noncitizens cost him the popular vote in 2016. In a further effort to draw attention to the issue, the White House convened a commission on voter fraud—though the commission disbanded without finding any evidence of corruption in the election. This time, though, the circumstances make his tactic particularly unsettling. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many more Americans will vote by mail in November than usually do so—a recipe for potential confusion and delays in ballot counting. In that environment, it isn’t hard to imagine how Trump could make use of a partisan electorate primed to distrust election results to generate real chaos.
That has the potential to lead to sky-high ratings for the final season of the Trump show. A president throwing lit matches onto the gasoline of electoral uncertainty would definitely command attention. So too, perhaps, would a president refusing to hand over power to his successor on the grounds that the Democratic victory in 2020 wasn’t legitimate.
There’s just one hitch, though: For such a season finale to be truly riveting, Trump would have to lose.