Monday, March 29, 2021


This Philip Bump column in The Washington Post has a ridiculous premise, stated in its headline:
Trump is losing the war over his legacy
By "legacy," Bump means control over the narrative of Trump's time in office as presented in works of mainstream journalism and history, such as a new CNN documentary on the COVID crisis.
On Sunday evening, CNN aired a special featuring interviews with the senior officials involved in the early coronavirus pandemic response under president Donald Trump. No longer operating under the Trump political umbrella, they offered assessments of the past year that lacked any soothing veneer.

Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House response under Trump, expressed her belief that the deaths that occurred after the first wave of infections last spring were largely preventable.... Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top epidemiologist, suggested it was government experts, not Trump, who had decided to push forward quickly on a vaccine to combat the virus in January 2020. That was months before the administration rolled out Operation Warp Speed, its push for vaccine development....

It is always the case that presidents want to shape their legacies. No president wants to be Warren G. Harding, pilloried by history when he's remembered at all. Much better to be a Franklin D. Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, legacies sitting on real foundations that have been carefully tended over time. One has to assume that for Trump, always so keenly attuned to public perceptions of him, the drive to be remembered in a specific light is even stronger.

Yet Trump is perhaps uniquely poorly positioned to frame his own legacy.

Most modern presidents, even controversial ones like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, have at least enough institutional legitimacy to be seen as reliable interlocutors about their own tenures. One can envision either of them or Barack Obama sitting down alongside a panel of historians at an event hosted by a prominent university, discussing presidential decision-making and its ramifications in good faith. It's quite difficult to imagine Trump doing the same thing
It's quite difficult to imagine Trump caring. I know -- and agree with -- the conventional wisdom that he always craved respect from New York's elite, and hates the fact that he never got it. But he met those people. His desire for their respect isn't the same as a desire for the respect of historians or long-form journalists -- he doesn't read these people's works and doesn't hang out with them, or want to.

Does the CNN documentary say his pandemic response was a failure? What he cares about is that his people will respond by saying "Fake news!" If he has concerns right now, it's about his ability to reach those people, the only people he cares about. He thinks they're the only real Americans. He thinks they're a majority of the country. (I think he genuinely believes he won the election in a landslide.) But he had no Plan B when Twitter banned him and he lost the daily media coverage given to sitting presidents. How does he get that back? Do more phone-in interviews on Fox? Give more wedding speeches at Mar-a-Lago? After nearly ten weeks out of office, he still has no idea what to do next.

I suppose the fact that, as Bump notes, Trump has agreed to interviews with Maggie Haberman and other authors of forthcoming books about him suggests that he does care what the non-MAGA world thinks. But when his decision to talk to Bob Woodward for Woodward's last book blew up in his face, he seemed unfazed. He shrugged off Woodward as a hater and a loser. He'll have the same reaction in the future to anyone elsehe speaks with who writes a critical book about him.

Because that's how he approaches this process. He wants good coverage from the mainstream media, he mostly doesn't get it, and he just kvetches about that, insisting that the reporters are biased and dishonest. He still believes that if he just talks long enough, it'll be obvious to any listener that he's the greatest president of all time -- even better than Honest Abe! It pisses him off when mainstream reporters won't report this self-evident truth, but it doesn't worry him so much as arouse his anger. (It worries him when Fox criticizes him, because Fox generally accepts his narrative as truth, and Fox speaks to his people.)

Ultimately, Trump believes he's loved (though he wants constant reinforcement, hence the recent wedding speech). He won't read the bad books. I'm sure he doesn't even read the pro-Trump books. The Power of Positive Thinking messages in his brain rally him when he's glum. He's certain he's still the kingmaker in the GOP (and he's right). He thinks he could have the 2024 GOP nomination for the asking (he's right about that, too). I think he cares more about that than about what a bunch of haters and losers who make documentaries and write books think about him.

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