While President Donald Trump may yet win re-election in 2020, many of his opponents argue that his position is a lot weaker than it could be if he weren't so personally outrageous, rude, and often seemingly out of control. Given the relative strength of the economy and the lack of major foreign wars, most presidents in Trump's shoes would be walking to a second-term victory. For Trump, it's far less certain.
This line of argument often inspires the hypothetical: How would Trump be doing if he kept his policy stances and general populist disposition, but was stripped of his personal idiosyncrasies? In a recent Politico piece, John Harris wrote: "A disrupter with a smidgeon of self-control would be remaking American politics and coasting to reelection."
But Tom Nichols, a conservative and longtime critic of Trump, disagreed with this argument for an intriguing reason.
"If Trump were not able to convince his cult that reality isn't real, we'd be arguing about who's really doing well and who isn't - just as we did under Obama and every other president. Farmers would be up in arms," Nichols said in a Twitter thread. "When Trumpers say they're better off, there's no evidence for it other than that they *feel* better off. Factories aren't reopening. Dead small towns are not being reborn. The cities? Doing fine, thank you. But Trump says: 'This isn't true,' and being *nuts* is what sells it."
Trump's ridiculous behavior was on full display on Tuesday when he sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi complaining about impeachment. Its tone and absurdist quality — it was littered with lies and exclamation points — led many observers to genuinely question Trump's mental health
"I'm only 2 1/2 paragraphs in to Trump's letter and it's clear to me that our President is unwell, unfit and very uninformed about our government & our legal system. And that fills me with a profound sadness that we're at this point. It's time to fix this," wrote legal analyst Joyce Vance.
Lawfare Executive Editor Susan Hennessey wrote: "This is not a letter authored by someone of sound mind or in full command of his mental faculties. The implications of that are obviously immense and quite scary but how long can we really continue to ignore it?"
But, to Nichols' point, Trump's fans celebrated it.
"President Donald Trump did not hold back in his letter objecting to impeachment in a scathing letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi," said Breitbart News, a far-right and Trump-aligned outlet, said in a tweet.
Many apparently pro-Trump commenters appeared pleased, as well:
@BreitbartNews It is, without a doubt, a criminal abuse of Congressional powers.— Gender Studies for Men (@Gender Studies for Men)1576613707.0
Because Trump's behavior and conduct are so wild, he's almost seen more as a totem than a president. It also allows some of his more egregious behavior to be written off: "That's just how the president talks," some of his defenders will say of his insults and his abuses of power, as if that makes it better.
"That's why speculating about how well Trump would be doing if he weren't nuts makes no sense; if he weren't nuts, people would be holding him responsible for things like multiple ICBM tests in NK, or gigantic trade war hurting farms and small businesses. But they don't," said Nichols. "This election will not turn on facts, data, events, or anything but a stubborn perception of 30-40 percent of a handful of states that Trump, against all evidence, made their life different than it was three years ago. There is no reasoning with them; just outvote them."
He feeds the anger his supporters feel toward their political opponents, instead of trying to argue with them to convince them of his worth as a leader. And since he's not trying to make a rational argument for his case, it may be harder for critics to change his supporters' minds. It's not about whether he's a good president or whether his policies are in the interest of the country; it's about how he makes his supporters feel.
This helps explain why Trump has had such a relatively (though low) stable approval rate and a particularly devoted group of fans. It doesn't make him a political genius or an unstoppable electoral force. But it is, in Nichols' words, his "real superpower."