Donald Trump may be currently ahead of his GOP rivals in the polls, but I think he’s shrinking. As his fickle, reactionary base grows restive and more radical and the law closes around him, Trump has drawn his accomplishments in around himself like an aging matron clutches at a tatty shawl. He’s pantomiming the same old manic exaggerations and empty boasts, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear the whisper of a deflating air bag.
Surprisingly, he’s the one poking the holes.
To stave off legal jeopardy and give himself a chance at the presidency in 2024, Trump has found a strange form of humility — admitting to areas where he has no power, de-emphasizing accomplishment he used to make central to his resume, and (sometimes accidentally) copping to major errors in judgment.
Trump may be currently ahead of his GOP rivals in the polls, but I think he’s shrinking.
Monday’s Fox News interview with Bret Baier was case in point. The former president presented conflicting and tortured justifications for hanging onto all those boxes of classified documents that didn’t belong to him. Legal analysts, including one at Fox News, have pointed out that when the answers were not self-incriminating, they were incoherent. They were also very sad.
Take his protestation that the papers he possessed were not, in fact, important “documents.” It was just trash, really: “A massive amount of paper,” he said, mixed in with golf shirts, pants and even shoes.
Special counsel Jack Smith has alleged — and a taped recording seems to confirm — that Trump also kept a classified document detailing military plans for a hypothetical invasion of Iran somewhere in there. On behalf of the National Archives’ sake, I hope everything’s clean. Pressed more, Trump eventually backtracked and denied even the existence of the Iran document.
Trump is now also scrambling to recast even genuine successes, such as his Covid vaccine initiative “Operation Warp Speed,” which helped distribute millions of doses of vaccines before eventually “limping to the finish,” according to Politico. Today, though, an alarming number of his former/maybe base believe the Covid vaccine is a Bill Gates project to turn them into AI-generated groomers. (More seriously — indeed, deadly seriously — polls show increasing vaccine hesitancy, about all vaccines, among conservative voters.)
At a campaign stop in Iowa, a potential caucus-goer bemoaned that “we have lost people because you supported the jab.” Trump refused to take full credit for the actual medicine, making it sound like he helped make way for a life-saving treatment on a dare: “Everyone wanted a vaccine at that time, and I was able to do something that nobody else could have done.”
Tuesday night, in part two of the Baier interview, Trump seems to have given up completely on that particular resume-builder. Baier pressed him on why he doesn’t talk about the vaccine more. Replied the former president, “I really don’t want to talk about it because, as a Republican, it’s not a great thing to talk about, because for some reason it’s just not.”
There’s saying the quiet part loud (which Trump used to excel at) and then there’s whatever that was — saying the quiet part pathetically. And when Baier expressed confusion at Trump’s incuriosity (“For some reason?”), Trump somehow showed even less backbone. “Yeah, for some reason,” he told the host. “Because people love the vaccines and people hate the vaccines. But conservatives aren’t — and I understand both sides of it, by the way.”
Trump’s tic of walking back what he used to campaign on is obviously still connected to his idea of what people want to hear.
Trump’s tic of walking back what he used to campaign on is obviously still connected to his idea of what people want to hear. He’s still campaigning, but it’s hard to bluster convincingly when you’re undercutting your own policy agenda, as when he tried to cast Florida governor (and current rival) Ron DeSantis as being “too harsh” for signing a bill that limited abortion access after six weeks. Obviously, Trump is correct in his assessment and, in fact, “too harsh” is a rather mild description of the horrors that have befallen pregnant people in the wake of Dobbs. But when’s the last time that Trump thought a policy wasn’t punitive enough?
To be fair, the 2024 campaign is still gearing up, and Trump has a penchant for pivoting. But right now, the public, self-narrated version of himself is starting to sound like the person many critics suspected was always at the core of Trump’s being: a tiny man inside a big suit, constantly pumping up his own ego while fearing the end of the charade is nigh. And maybe it finally is.