Even by the usual standards of President Donald Trump – and it is remarkable how many pieces now begin this way – this has been a particularly bonkers week. It started with a truly bizarre spat with Denmark over an idea that Trump had got in his head to buy Greenland – which is not for sale – and which led to the cancellation of a planned presidential visit after Danish Prime Minister called the idea “absurd”.
The president careened on through the week. By Wednesday, the same day that he caused outrage with the anti-Semitic assertion that American Jews who vote Democratic are being “disloyal” to Israel, he also compared himself to a messiah, describing himself to reporters as “the chosen one” – leading CNN to conclude that Trump is “either trolling everyone or thinks he’s like a god”.
Well, it’s likely both. The president’s narcissistic tendencies are well-documented; it is entirely probable that he believes, in a certain way, in his status as quasi-messiah.
But there is something else at play too. Every news cycle of outrage about one or other of Trump’s cockamamie schemes or outrageous statements is a news cycle he controls. He and his base feed off the outrage from the media and the left.
It is possible to over-state this case. Trump is a reactive operator – an approach honed by his experiences in reality TV and as a New York tabloid fixture – so it would be going too far to believe that he is playing some kind of “four-dimensional chess”.
But certainly, Trump and his aides know that he is on much safer political territory when riding the wave of another cycle of outrage than if the national conversation had a chance to be about something he’d rather not talk about: the rapidly tanking US economy.
The stock market has been bullish on Trump, largely because he is considered to be anti-regulation. But cracks are starting to show as the president’s escalating trade wars – especially with China – put the US economy under considerable strain.
Earnings growth slowed in the second quarter of 2019 to just 2.1 per cent, and the US bond market yield curve inverted last week in what many analysts saw as a warning that a recession might be on the horizon.
Trump has taken enough public credit for the stock market’s resilience to know that if the economy goes into recession he will lose one of his major political talking points. This would leave him especially vulnerable if, as seems increasingly likely, he faces a Democratic opponent in 2020 of an economic populist bent – Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, say.
That’s likely why he has been particularly attracted this week to shiny distractions such as his Greenland spat: because if he’s on the attack with wildcard schemes like that, he’s not on the defensive about the increasingly questionable state of the economy and its effect on his base, especially in rural parts of the country where farmers have been hit particularly hard by his trade wars.