The Hard Problem of Bringing Trump Into Focus

The video shows Donald Trump standing at a gilded lectern in Mar-a-Lago. It’s December, a week or so before Christmas, and the former president is addressing a group of donors.

“You are all people that have a lot of money!” Trump tells them. “I know 20 of you, and you’re rich as hell!”

As the deep-pocketed crowd whoops and laughs, Trump presses on, asking them to “quadruple” whatever they originally intended to give. Eventually, he arrives at the quo for their quid. “We’re going to give you tax cuts,” Trump promises, to even louder cheers.

The video, which appears to have been shot with a camera phone, was livestreamed to Facebook by a Mar-a-Lago member. It called to mind another video, of another rich Republican presidential candidate speaking candidly to another crowd of rich donors, from nearly a dozen years earlier. In that video, which was secretly recorded by a bartender and leaked to the liberal magazine Mother Jones, Mitt Romney denigrated the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax as freeloaders who don’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” The “47 percent” video, as it came to be known, sent Romney’s campaign into a tailspin from which it never recovered. But the video of Trump sucking up to the 1 percent barely caused a ripple. Outside of a handful of liberal blogs, it essentially vanished into the ether.

The contrast raises a perennial question: What does move the needle when it comes to Donald Trump? While there’s no denying that the businessman and former reality-TV star has dominated American politics since the moment he came down the Trump Tower escalator nine years ago — that rarely an hour, much a less day, has gone by when his name or picture hasn’t been on our screens — it can often seem as if we now accept this dominance as a fact of life without really focusing on it. His bluster has become, essentially, background noise to our daily lives.

This, in a nutshell, is what Joe Biden’s campaign believes to be its biggest structural problem — that the race does not yet sufficiently revolve around Trump. It attributes the polls that have shown him trailing Trump for the last eight months to the fact that voters do not realize, or have not fully grappled with the reality, that Trump will be on the ballot in November. Once they do, the Biden team appears convinced, they’ll remember all the reasons they sent Trump packing four years ago.

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