Donald Trump has kicked off his reelection campaign in Orlando Florida at a massive rally with an endless stemwinder of Fidel Castro length. Let us not forget as we review the spectacle that, despite a wealth of solid evidence that he’s an ignorant buffoon, the man has a touch of genius.
He occasionally reminds critics of the ostensible proof: “I’m President, and you’re not.” Which, of course, is an irrefutable argument; becoming president is not an easy thing to achieve. The question raised by Trump’s Orlando MAGA fest is whether his genius, such as it is, is sufficient to pull off a four-year-long encore.
At stake for Trump is far more than surrendering the pleasures of power, the attention he finds at the center of the universe, which even though endless can never sate his unquenchable narcissistic thirst. Trump does not need Democratic candidates vowing to prosecute him should they capture the White House to understand that, even with the Mueller report behind him, he remains in jeopardy.
Congressional and New York State investigators are bearing down on him for impeachable malfeasance and a multiplicity of possible crimes. Even if he does not go to prison, he might well be ruined. Another four-year term in the White House is an essential reprieve.
Right now, Trump seems to be at a distinct disadvantage in the Electoral College. But surely his first campaign was more of a long-shot. Descending a golden escalator in Trump Tower to call Mexicans rapists and murders, Trump and his candidacy were taken as a tasteless joke. But Trump had the last laugh and now he is the incumbent in the White House, with vast powers to set the agenda, to control the news cycle, and to preside over an economy that, whatever clouds lurk on the horizon, is red hot.
If Trump’s odds were terrible the first time around and he still managed to win, surely the second time around, the odds have improved.
So has Trump’s stage presence. Despite its inordinate length, Trump’s Orlando performance was, in comparison to innumerable past rallies, remarkably hinged. He veered off the teleprompter at times, but only to stick to crowd-tested riffs, like Hillary Clinton’s alleged “acid-washing” of her emails and the “fake media’s” alleged failure to report on the massive size of his crowds.
Although droning on far too long, on the whole Trump kept to a reasonably well-crafted script, offering a touch of nationalism — “a nation must take care of its own citizens first” — and emphasizing the economy which he said was “prospering, thriving, booming and soaring to incredible new heights.”
If Trump’s capacity to improve as a public speaker was in evidence in Orlando, his greatest political skill is to conjure up, via brazen falsehoods, an alternative reality, a reality he himself seems to enter, bringing along his almost hypnotized chanting followers. His reelection slogan, “Promises Made, Promises Kept,” is a prime example. In the real world, his promises to build a wall on our southern border, to repeal Obamacare, to restore the depleted military and American standing in the world have not been kept.
Indeed, Trump’s capacity to promise and not deliver on his promises — and not pay a price for not delivering — is a staggering phenomenon, a mild form of collective insanity. Just days ago, Trump announced the imminent roundup of “millions” of illegal immigrants in the US, red meat for his base. But Department of Homeland Security officials were caught unawares. No such plan is imminent. Trump told George Stephanopoulos on camera that he would be rolling out a new health-care reform package within two months or less. White House aides knew nothing about it.
In Orlando he promised that he would cure cancer, eradicate AIDs, and lay the foundation to land astronauts on Mars. None of this is likely to happen. But never mind. Millions of American seem willing to choose Trump’s fantasy of achievements over the banal reality.
But are Trump’s undeniable gifts as a lying snake-oil salesman enough? Given his standing in the polls — he is trailing by significant margins in every swing state — it is tempting to believe that voters have had enough, that they have seen through the endless charade. But for Democrats that would be a huge mistake. For even as Donald Trump is an ignorant fool, he’s also an intuitive genius. A second Trump term is well within the realm of possibility.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is the author of “Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.” Follow him on Twitter: @gabeschoenfeld