Last week, Quinnipiac University released a poll showing the top five Democrats besting Donald Trump by somewhere between nine and sixteen points among registered voters. More important: No matter the matchup, Trump couldn’t get above 40 percent, and his approval rating was stuck at 38 percent.

A grain of salt: Quinnipiac tends to be one of Trump’s poorer-performing polls. Still, as of Friday, FiveThirtyEight pegs the president’s approval rating at 42.2 percent among registered or likely voters, and 40.2 percent among adults.

Presidents, of course, don’t win reelection with those kinds of numbers. But what should really keep his campaign up at night is how static they are. They’ve barely budged since January 2018. And all of a sudden, the economy’s not looking as rosy as it has his first 136 weeks in office.  The trade war with China, something he promised would be easy to win, has been a massive own goal. The Department of Labor rolled back its job-creation estimates. Economists are increasingly worried about a recession.

Trump’s presidency has always been exceptionally grueling, but some weeks are more exceptional than others. And last week was as frantic and cruel as we’ve seen, and carried with it more than a whiff and resentment and desperation. You could almost see the president realizing that his years of corruption and malice and bullshit might actually catch up to him.

I tried to pin down one story that summed this up. But then I thought it would be more useful to focus on the forest than the trees.

We could start with the not-so-unusual batch of insanity: the report about Trump wanting to nuke a hurricane, for instance; or the news that Trump had invented from whole cloth a story about “high-level” Chinese officials asking to restart trade talks in an effort to juice the flagging stock market; or Trump tweeting a classified photo of an Iranian missile-launch site.

From there, we could jump into the hypocrisy: his campaign’s (mildly racist) email mocking AOC’s call to abolish the Electoral College, though Trump once called the Electoral College a “disaster for our democracy”; his denigration of possible primary challenger/Appalachian Trail hiker Mark Sanford, as if Trump hadn’t (allegedly) raw-dogged a porn star soon after his third wife gave birth to their son; his attempted dunking on James Comey following a Department of Justice report critical of Comey’s handling of memos related to his conversations with Trump, as if the Mueller report didn’t confirm Trump’s repeated efforts to obstruct justice.  

From there, the graft: The New York Times report that Trump’s alleged initiative to help the poor had—surprise—actually proven to be a bonanza for the very rich, including—surprise again—Trump’s family and advisers. From there, the narcissism: The Washington Post reporting that, during a private tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, when told about the Dutch role in the slave trade, Trump responded, “You know, they love me in The Netherlands.”

But let’s skip all that in favor of the pointless damage Trump will inflict on the world in service to his ego. Last week, the administration announced that it would seek to roll back rules limiting the emission of methane, even though fossil fuel companies themselves support those rules.

There’s also the pointless cruelty he’s fostered. Take Ismail B. Ajjawi, a Palestinian who was supposed to start at Harvard this fall but had his visa arbitrarily canceled at the Boston airport because a Border Patrol agent didn’t approve of his friends’ social media posts. Or Ixcell Perez, a fourteen-year-old who was born in the U.S. but was initially denied re-entry from Mexico to seek treatment for leukemia at Duke Hospital. Her mother wasn’t allowed to visit her until a newspaper reported on the situation last week. Or, most egregiously, Jimmy Aldaoud, whose body was flown back to Detroit from Iraq last week. Aldaoud, forty-one, had lived in the U.S. since he was less than a year old, after being born in a refugee camp in Greece; he suffered from diabetes and schizophrenia. Trump deported him in June to a country where he’d never been, knew no one, didn’t know the language, and had no place to live; he was dead within two months.

Lest you think these stories outliers or bureaucratic screw-ups, consider this: On August 26, the administration eliminated a protection that allows immigrants to avoid deportation while they or their relatives seek life-saving medical treatment. This is a policy change that will, quite literally, kill people. On August 29, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services issued a separate policy change that will prevent the children of some naturalized citizens who are serving in the military or diplomatic corps and are born in U.S. facilities abroad from automatically becoming citizens—an escalation of Trump’s campaign against birthright citizenship.

None of this will make Americans safer. That’s not the point. The point is to position Trump as a strongman for his supporters to rally around. That was made clear in an August 27 story in The Post, in which officials involved with Trump’s border wall said the president “directed aides to fast-track billions of dollars’ worth of construction contracts, aggressively seize private land and disregard environmental rules” to build hundreds of miles of the wall before the election.

If they need to break the law to do it, Trump reportedly promised to pardon his subordinates, even though “Trump conceded last year in an immigration meeting with lawmakers that a wall or barrier is not the most effective mechanism to curb illegal immigration. … Trump talked about the loud cheers the wall brought at rallies.”

It’s no big leap from cruelty toward, well, whatever you call Trump’s reaction to a tropical storm nearing Puerto Rico, which is still recovering after thousands died following his administration’s half-assed hurricane-recovery efforts in 2017: “Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth. … And by the way, I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico!”

There are sixty more weeks until the 2020 election. Deep breaths, everyone. 

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at 

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