If Donald Trump loses reelection, it will be because the country changed and he did not. Over the past several months, the United States has witnessed a once-in-a-century pandemic, the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, and some of the largest protests since the 1960s. Public opinion has swung hard in favor of scientific expertise, a functioning welfare state, and greater racial justice. Yet Donald Trump has responded by becoming an even more cartoonish version of himself.
On Tuesday in The New York Times, Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin puzzled over Trump’s refusal to adapt to the moment. In the face of polling showing that a majority of “somewhat conservative” voters approve of the Black Lives Matter movement, the two Times journalists wrote, Trump has become even more “inflammatory on race.” They added, “No matter how much his advisers and lawmakers nudge him to project unity and bigness, he keeps bingeing on the political equivalent of comfort food.” In trying to explain Trump’s behavior, Haberman and Martin rhetorically throw up their hands. “As political strategy goes,” they write, “it’s confounding.”
As political strategy, perhaps, but not as human psychology. Everything that the public knows about Trump suggests that the prospect of being humiliated by events outside his control is causing him enormous stress. And everything that scientists know about stress suggests that it leads people to fall back into old habits. Stress makes it hard for people to change, even when they need to most.