CALL it the Jerk Store protocol. Let’s start with that. For most of his life, Donald Trump has always insisted on having the last say. No accusation or attack is stoically ignored; not in preference for a higher, nobler dignity, not in imitation of Christ and not for the sake of rebuilding an interpersonal status quo ante bellum. This has occasionally been hilarious to watch, as when he famously left Megyn Kelly nowhere to go after she attempted to embarrass the then presidential contender in 2015 for his alleged meanness to women. My personal favourite came during an explanation to Wolf Blitzer of why he regularly attacked the same Megyn Kelly. At a noticeable, distinct point, you can actually see Trump make the decision that he might as well take out Blitzer while he’s at it. When CNN’s Chris “Fredo” Cuomo politely questioned the emerging Republican frontrunner on the wisdom of always hitting back, you guessed it – Trump hit back. Even though Cuomo made a reasonable point, Trump knew these courtesy cops were insincere shills, knew they were harassing him as they never did Democrats and didn’t care how severely incinerated his bridge to their world was becoming.
There was a self-defeating downside to never backing off, however. When Trump casually declared John McCain was never a war hero because he was captured – “I like people who weren’t captured” – he crossed a line no aspiring President should ever cross. (The banal truth about John McCain, of course, was that a war hero was all he was). Yes, the inveterate RINO sycophant to progressives had slandered Trump’s supporters as “crazies” and, yes, he later boasted that he’d secretly received the Steele Dossier and shopped it around (becoming the first American “war hero” to work for the Kremlin). But at the time, Trump was just lashing out because another interviewer was pressuring him to concede a trifling point.
This policy of never conceding or accommodating was supposedly inculcated in the young Donald by the Trumps’ storied lawyer, Roy Cohn, who handled the mogul family’s legal brawls in New York as ruthlessly as any of the city’s mafia consiglieri. Cohn’s “ten times harder” maxim on countering became a signature principle in Donald Trump’s public life. You could say it worked a treat in 2015 because the American public – long mistrustful of the media – liked seeing a Republican who fought back, who didn’t grovel like McCain or Mitt Romney. (The two men who took on Barack Obama for the White House were rewarded for pious civility with accusations in The New York Times and the Washington Post of adultery and socipathic cruelty to animals respectively).
The McCain overkill nevertheless showcased a certain recklessness beneath the dignity of high office – sought or attained – and it alienated some conservatives. POWs are not second-rate losers or quitters. Trump knew that but couldn’t help himself. Not being able to help yourself is not a strength commonly attributed to effective leaders, even if uncompromising self-belief is. When it happens more than once, it isn’t a ‘bad day’ or a ‘flash of anger’ but an emotional weakness political opponents will exploit. A strong President must sometimes move judo-like with the weight of even wrongheaded orthodoxies so that he can be at the centre of things and control them. And sometimes a President has to go it alone regardless of orthodoxy as a matter of immovable principle. Contrary to mythology, on coronavirus Trump got the balance right – or, at least, no more wrong than anyone else in the world. He did not call the virus a “hoax,” he ignored Democrat know-nothings to shut down flights from China and he personally oversaw a “warp speed” vaccine program that delivered. All while Joe Biden was talking to himself in a basement.
Trump’s relationship to the movement he single-handedly built and the biblical crowds that were its doof doof drumbeat for four years are part of this story. He performed for them – outstandingly – but occasionally forgot himself for their entertainment. You tell hardened Joint Chiefs to “bomb the shit” out of the enemy in private, not at a rally. A criticism of the President I made several times during his tenure was his reluctance to address the nation from the Oval Office. This has always been the means by which presidents reach far beyond their diehard base to communicate with everyone else. There was certainly enough crisis over the past 12 months to warrant it. Trump preferred Twitter and MAGA rallies. That was foolish. Big crowds signify little. John Hewson drew hordes in 1993. In the end, when the courts closed the docket book on November’s election, these two proclivities – hair-trigger fractiousness and an overestimation of a crowd’s political worth – combined to gift his corrupt foes one last opportunity for deranged hoax-mongering.