In Donald Trump's book "The Art of the Deal," he offered readers a piece of advice he might now do well to take: "You can't con people, at least not for long," he (or his ghostwriter) explained. "You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole. But if you don't deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on."
Through most of his life, Trump's unparalleled talent for branding served him well as he built an image for competence and success in real estate, which was, to put it mildly, disproportionate to reality. He touted himself as a real estate genius, but he was a marketer and brand developer who used what building he did at the start of his career to build up his brand as a builder. This arc culminated in reality television, where he simply played the role of successful real estate magnate and business leader that he had constructed.
Unfortunately for Trump — and, more important, for Americans — 2020 has brought into sharp relief the tragic inability of marketing to fix every problem, not to mention how limiting and even debilitating it is for a president to view the world exclusively through his own rose-colored (and gold-plated) glasses.
The president's habit of accentuating (or fabricating) the positive was the first topic Axios' Jonathan Swan asked him about in his instantaneously infamous interview on HBO: "This is the mantra that if you believe something, if you visualize it, then it will happen," Swan said. Trump acknowledged the observation with characteristic self-satisfaction: "I've been given a lot of credit for positive thinking, but I also think about downside, because only a fool doesn't."
While it might be strange to think of the "American carnage" president as a latter-day, unhinged acolyte of "The Power of Positive Thinking" author Norman Vincent Peale — an influence most recently noted by Mary Trump in her new book — it does gives context to perhaps his best-known characteristics: his lying and his fabulism.
From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump has treated the virus — which has, to date, been found in more than 4.7 million people in the U.S. and has killed more than 156,000 of us — as a personal public relations problem rather than as a crisis requiring careful and thoughtful leadership. Planning to win re-election on the back of what he (falsely) proclaims the greatest economy in history, he whistled past the graveyard, repeatedly downplaying the threat.
The numbers have, in his telling, always been just about to turn the corner. Remember the cruise ship he didn't want to unload because it would make the national numbers look bad? Or how, when he has been occasionally forced to address the gravity of the problem, he has repeatedly clung to notion that the disease would simply disappear one day? And his quick shift to cheerleading the reopening of businesses, after which came his demand that schools reopen for in-person instruction regardless of safety? Or his repeated assertions that if we didn't test as much, there would be fewer cases with which to cope?
They are all are reflections of his basic strategy for dealing with the pandemic: We can, as a society, go back to the Before Times simply by believing it's time to do so.
Those failings were on repeated display in the "Axios on HBO" interview, most painfully as he tried to convince Swan — and through him the 58 percent of Americans who disapprove of how he has handled the COVID-19 crisis — that their lived experiences of the last six months have misinformed them. "Those people that really understand it ... they say it's incredible the job that we've done," Trump claimed. ("Who says that?" Swan replied.) Trump said the disease is under control, even as it burns through the South and has started to ignite in the Midwest. There's too much testing, he asserted again, and when Swan asked who thinks that, Trump replied: "Just read the manual, read the books." ("Manuals," Swann asked, channeling sentient beings everywhere. "What manuals?")
To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw: Some men see things as they are and say, "Why?" while Trump sees things as he'd like them to be and calls the other guy "fake news."
"In numerous categories, we're lower than the world," Trump further claimed, squinting at charts he took to the interview apparently showing that the U.S. death rate as a percentage of the infection rate is lower than in other countries. When Swan pointed out that the U.S. is ahead of most of the world in deaths as a proportion of population, Trump complained, "You can't do that."
Unhelpful facts simply don't compute for Trump, who is famously unwilling to admit any kind of failure, because failure would tarnish the brand. But Trump regularly confuses optics and branding with policy and leadership — which is no surprise: When you're a marketer, every problem is a marketing problem.
To be sure, Trump isn't the first president to deploy spin or to try to use his own positive outlook to sway national attitudes. Franklin D. Roosevelt started his presidency by telling a nation mired in the Great Depression that the only thing it had to fear was fear itself. Or, more darkly, recall the anonymous George W. Bush aide who spoke dismissively of the reality-based community: "When we act, we create our own reality," the staffer told Ron Suskind. "And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities."
The difference, of course, is that Trump's predecessors were more grounded in the actual reality than he seems to be and used spin more judiciously than he seems capable of. More important, they understood that spin was but one tool in the presidential kit, and they had other political skills and relationships they could and would deploy. Trump is a one-trick pony, and he's used that trick so often — 20,000 times and counting — that people have long since caught on.
There is another problem Trump would know about if he had any grasp of history: Positive presidential thinking fares poorly when it encounters hard realities. Bush's positivity — "Mission Accomplished!" for example — collapsed under the weight of the Iraq fiasco abroad and then was swept away by Hurricane Katrina at home.
And to Trump's point from his own book, the only goods Trump is delivering at this point when it comes to the coronavirus are his positive thoughts. But the people, having caught on to his con and having seen the reality of the disease for themselves, are no longer buying.