On Tuesday, not long after he had concluded an astonishing performance of dexamethasone-fueled theatrics from Walter Reed Hospital, President Donald Trump announced he would be quashing further negotiations on a new stimulus package intended to extend much-needed relief to those caught in the economic stresses of the failed response to the coronavirus pandemic. Like so many of his haphazard decisions, there was an obvious and unsurprising cruelty underlying Trump’s out-of-the-blue pronouncement. What made this one unique was that it was also remarkably dumb from a political standpoint.
The decision did succeed in stimulating perplexed reactions from quarters far and wide. No new stimulus, the Fed warned, would spell a fresh round of swift economic disaster; ever-watchful traders caused the stock market to plummet accordingly. The capricious announcement also came right on the heels of Trump reaffirming that the same pandemic that had killed more than 200,000 Americans was no biggie. “We have the best medical equipment, we have the best medicines!” he marveled, which, given his top-tier experimental treatments and the miserable state of health care in this country, sounded rather like “Let them eat Regeneron.”
Over the last 72 hours, political commentators have been trying to make some sense of Trump’s seemingly impaired judgment. I think it’s true, as The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie recently wrote, that Trump’s political shrewdness has always been vastly overstated, that he ascended to the presidency as an unfortunate circumstance of dumb luck and the inherently anti-democratic design of the Electoral College, and that this moment of crisis has illuminated his political ineptitude in all its jaw-dropping glory. But given the rampant and chaotic spectacle of the last few days, it’s also becoming difficult not to entertain the possibility that—after facing a near-constant stream of public hatred, an impeachment, bungling the pandemic response so disastrously that “American exceptionalism” took on a new meaning, blindly stumbling through the worst recession in a generation, fumbling wave after wave of national unrest over police brutality, killing Herman Cain, and contracting Covid-19—Trump simply doesn’t want to be president anymore.
A few years ago, author Michael Wolff infamously alleged that the Trump camp, which never expected to win, experienced bewilderment and terror in rapid succession on election night when it became clear that Trump had actually won the election. (Which, if true, is probably the most they’ve ever had in common with the majority of Americans.) Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, has similarly claimed that the president saw his 2016 campaign only as a madcap marketing strategy, or the “greatest infomercial in political history.” Trump was elected to office with three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton in a fluke election besieged by scandal from the start; he swiftly displaced George W. Bush—noted dunce, instigator of the Iraq War, and late-life reader of The Very Hungry Caterpillar—as the worst-ever president in the popular imagination.
In the four years since, the country has been in a near-constant state of turmoil, but the coronavirus pandemic, a global catastrophe over which even the most experienced heads of state have lost sleep, has been a particularly disastrous burden to lay on a president who’s historically lacked interest in running the country with any degree of competence. And Trump—who was so woefully underprepared for the presidency that he openly mused, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated,” when his scheme to kill the Affordable Care Act flopped—has had to contend with widespread infection, equipment shortages, and mass unemployment while simultaneously broadcasting his nonchalance about the whole ordeal to keep the anti-mask, anti-lockdown portion of his base satisfied. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to call it a day?
The signs that Trump may pine for a return to the simpler days of hosting reality TV and stalking beauty pageants have perhaps been there all along. According to journalist Nancy Gibbs, who interviewed him a little after the 2016 election and brought up the possibility of visiting him at the White House in the future, he kidding-not-kiddingly replied, “What if I don’t like it? What if I don’t want to do it anymore?” Within one hundred days of taking office, Trump gave an interview to Reuters in which he expressed surprise that his new job was as difficult as it was, musing, “I loved my previous life. I had so many things going.… This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.”
More recently, The New York Times reported over the summer that a number of White House aides, worried that Trump was sabotaging his own reelection, had begged him to stop publicly advocating broadly unpopular policies such as opening fire on protesters, to which he apparently responded, “I have to be myself.” Has our president been desperately searching for an escape hatch this whole time?
That seems like one increasingly plausible explanation for Trump’s latest decision to single-handedly tank a new stimulus less than a week after the release of a troubling jobs report that all but guarantees prolonged economic hardship. While that move—which essentially amounts to issuing and stamping his name on a batch of $0 stimulus checks—could simply be a new level of political idiocy, it just might also be a ploy to get out of office without the humiliation of an outright resignation. After Trump’s many tribulations over the last four years, the least the American people can do is help him out.