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Trump chose his political brand over his presidency

Analysis: The president is both captor and captive of a brand that has lost its luster for persuadable voters.
President Donald Trump has proved unwilling or unable to change tacks to win re-election.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Less than a month out from Election Day, President Donald Trump is dealing with a hostage crisis of sorts — he is both the captor and the captive of a badly tarnished political brand.

The more it fades, the more he tends to it. The more he tends to it, the more it fades.

The core of that brand is the notion that superhuman instincts and physical capabilities enable him to win at everything all the time. But he has been unable to explain the dissonance between that concept and his inability to effectively stop the coronavirus from crippling the economy and killing 210,000 Americans.

In his own personal battle with the disease, he has tried to project immortal strength while risking the exposure of people around him, including Secret Service members and his own top aides. To critics, it is yet another example of Trump ignoring the public health risks of the pandemic.

He filmed a video outside the Oval Office this week in which he referred to his illness as a "blessing from God" and promoted a drug he says he took as a "cure," even though there is no evidence to support his claim. He tried to exert control over negotiations on a coronavirus relief bill paralyzed by partisan warfare in Washington and the next planned presidential debate by pulling out of both of them. Now, his aides are scrambling to resurrect a potential deal by adding $200 billion to the pot.

That may be a small cost compared to the loss of Republicans' leverage and political messaging as they sought to blame Democrats for refusing to deliver help to the public. They also must contend with questions that arise from Trump bashing members of his own Cabinet, calling for the indictment of President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and refusing to say whether he has been tested for the coronavirus since returning from the hospital to the White House.

These behaviors would be considered erratic for most presidents; for Trump, they are consistent with his brand. If anything, he has been more "Trump" — the way he refers to himself in interviews — than ever in recent days.

But he is paying a heavy price for that.

Only 35 percent of registered voters see him as honest, according to a Pew Research poll released Friday. That makes it next to impossible for him to serve as his own messenger because the people he needs to persuade do not trust him. Moreover, he trails Democratic challenger Joe Biden by about 10 percentage points — a record deficit for an incumbent at this point in the race.

"He doesn’t have anybody close to him, that loves him enough, that he trusts enough, that can keep him from continuing to destroy himself,” Joe Scarborough, the co-host of "Morning Joe," who served as a Republican in Congress, said on MSNBC on Friday morning.

For nearly four years, Trump has rejected every opportunity to dilute his brand, even a little bit, to widen his coalition. The latest, and perhaps last, chance came when he decided to amplify his message on the coronavirus after being hospitalized with the disease. His insistence that it mostly just takes resolve to defeat the virus is a large part of why, more than seven months into a national crisis that has killed 210,000 Americans and left millions without work, most voters say he has mishandled the federal response.

Trump's repetition of behavior guarantees the same result — diminishing returns — whether he is simply unwilling to change course, or fundamentally incapable of doing so. He has shown such fidelity to his brand and his base for so long that a departure on the eve of the election would look craven.

He is caught in his own trap. And his predictability makes it easy for his adversaries to pin him there.

For example, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, only needed to mention the 25th Amendment, which provides for the temporary or permanent removal of a president who is incapable of discharging his duties, to put Trump and his surrogates in the position of publicly arguing over his fitness for office.

"That’s an absurd proposition from Nancy Pelosi," White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on "Fox and Friends" on Friday morning. "The only one who needs to be looking at the 25th Amendment is Nancy Pelosi herself."

The 25th Amendment to the Constitution does not provide for the removal of members of Congress. More important, Trump's capacity to carry out his duties is not the turf he wants to fight on as he asks voters to give him another four years in the job. And every minute spent battling Pelosi, who is not running for president, is one that could have been used to promote his own performance or attack Biden's agenda.

He should be deeply worried about his standing in the polls.

The only time a challenger led by as much as Biden does at this point in a presidential campaign was in 1992, when Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, according to Gallup poll archives that date back to 1936. Incumbent Jimmy Carter led challenger Ronald Reagan until the last days of the campaign before losing in 1980, and Gerald Ford was closer to Carter before losing in 1976.

Still, Trump has proved unwilling or unable to change tacks to win re-election.

He is on course to keep his brand — and lose his presidency.