Donald Trump waited six full years to agree to an interview with NPR, and the toe-curling result was aired this morning. It’s safe to say that there’s a reason he stayed away. And it’s also safe to say that the 2024 campaign trail, if Number 45 chooses to tread it, will be a lot more difficult than he may have expected.
Trump is desperate for mainstream and social media attention. He needs it if he wants to run again for the presidency, and he certainly needs it for a chance at winning. But he’s been kicked off Twitter and mollycoddled by Fox News and its even more extreme cousins (Newsmax, One America News) for so long that he’s forgotten what it’s like out in the big, bad world. Once a combative firebrand, it became clear during the NPR interview he rage-quit after just nine minutes that one Donald J. Trump is now…well…a bit of a fragile snowflake.
He started by saying the quiet part out loud. At the beginning of the interview, NPR’s Steve Inskeep thanked the former president for appearing and noted that they had first invited him on the program back in 2015. “Well, I guess I — I got lucky by not doing it, right?” Trump replied, sounding uncharacteristically unsure of himself. He then almost immediately asked whether they would be “going live” or not, before being reassured that the interview (which happened on Tuesday, but was aired on Wednesday morning) was pre-recorded. It was a nervy start to a radio appearance that rapidly went downhill.
What does he think of vaccines? Well, he supports “individual choice”. He opposes mandates. So far, so expected. He’s taken the vaccine himself and “had absolutely no reverberation”. Strange choice of words, but sure.
Then it got a lot more weird. People who have had Covid maybe shouldn’t get the vaccine if they’re in low-risk groups, Trump posited. “But, you know, we — the administration has to start giving credit to people that had the China plague — or call it whatever you want. But it came out of China, and it’s a disaster for the world.” At this point, Inskeep was clearly confused by the direction Trump’s train of thought was going in. When he said “the administration”, did he mean his own imaginary ongoing administration after “winning” the election? How exactly does one “give credit” to people who have had Covid? At the point at which “the China plague” was wheeled out, Inskeep forcibly moved the conversation on with a question about the Big Lie.
“Is it a disadvantage for Republicans to keep talking about the 2020 election in 2022?” he asked. Trump repeated his usual spin about voter fraud, ballots in Detroit, corrupted counts in Arizona. Inskeep politely continued to remind the former president that Republicans themselves had had to accept the results of the 2020 election, and had found no evidence of fraud in the states that had been under investigation. Why would they do such a thing?
Trump lost his cool easily: “Because they’re RINOs,” of course (the dismissive acronym for supposed ‘Republicans In Name Only’). His own campaign attorney in Arizona, Kory Langhofer, was “[not] a good attorney to hire”. What about GOP allies in the Senate? “Mitch McConnell is a loser.” And by the way, Biden was “sitting in his basement” and “couldn’t attract 20 for a crowd”. So far, so 2019.
By the time he was raving about how 80 million people couldn’t possibly have turned out for Sleepy Joe, however, it was clear even Trump knew this appearance wasn’t doing him any favors. As Inskeep struggled to interrupt his stream of consciousness, he abruptly finished a rant about the election with, “you have to solve the problem of the presidential rigged election of 2020,” thanked the presenter in a tone that suggested he was not thankful for the opportunity in any way, and hung up. Toys were fully flung out of the stroller, littering the floor.
In less than 10 minutes, the former president showed how hard it’s going to be for him to campaign successfully in 2024. In 2016, Trump was an outsider on the offensive. He was able to rail about governments in general, corruption rife inside the White House, a system that taints everyone it touches. In 2020, he tried that again, and it didn’t quite land.
Now, he’s defending a political record after years outside. He’s facing a radicalized voter base that stormed the Capitol and believes Bill Gates might have teamed up with Fauci to microchip Americans via vaccines that also make you infertile. The last time he told a rally of his supporters that he’d been vaccinated, he was roundly booed.
This leaves 45 in a tough spot. He wants to run on a platform of successes and he wants to include within those successes “Operation Warp Speed”, the Trump administration’s name for a program that sought to massively accelerate vaccine production and availability. How do you do that when a large proportion of your base has come to reject vaccines altogether? He wants to take credit for bolstering the economy during the pandemic by delivering generous stimulus checks to American taxpayers — but how do you do that when your base — and indeed your party — is more radically opposed to “socialism” and “government handouts” than ever? He also wants to keep pushing the Big Lie that the election was stolen, but that’s become a much more dangerous-seeming issue for Republicans since the January 6th insurrection. Rants by Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Matt Gaetz on Steve Bannon’s podcast might scratch an egotistical itch, but they’ll do little to bolster his chances at the ballot box.
Trump entered his presidency in 2016 with a sense of combative enjoyment. Whatever one thought of him, one sensed that he enjoyed the sparring, the back-and-forth, the good and the bad attention alike. Then he wrapped himself in cotton wool and allowed himself to be yes-manned round a presidency. He got a little bit too used to people smiling and nodding. He bought into their delusions. And when the voters didn’t reflect back to him what he’d been led to believe, he couldn’t face the truth.
Now, it seems, he’s lost his sense of joy in the fight. His voice is tired, demoralized, unsure. He’s pushing a conspiracy that reasonable Republican voters find distasteful. And he can’t stick out an interview on mainstream media for even 10 minutes. How the heck’s he going to survive another campaign?