There are three things to understand about Donald Trump at present. The first is that he may be incoherent and self-obsessed, but he’s not a fool.
The New York Times newspaper’s revelations about his tax-dodging show this. Trump has been able to leverage a billionaire lifestyle and status out of a mixture of debt, celebrity, and using huge business losses to offset his taxes.
Sure, his elaborate system of financial dodges must have been devised by clever lawyers and accountants, but he hired them.
He’s like Augustus Melmotte, the financier in Anthony Trollope’s novel The Way We Live Now, whose vast fortune proves to be a myth. If Trump weren’t president he might already have been engulfed in the kind of ruin that drives Melmotte to suicide.
Secondly, Trump isn’t a fascist but he is building fascism in the US. He has the kind of ultra right wing views that have long been common among the US super-rich.
But he’s too obsessed with his personal status and wealth to be interested in creating a new regime. And big capital doesn’t need fascism to crush the US’s weakened trade unions.
But Trump is badly behind in the presidential contest with the Democrats’ Joe Biden. To have any chance of re-election, he has simultaneously to motivate his mainly white small-town supporters to vote and keep Democrats away from the ballot box.
The latter partly involves various semi-legal measures devised by Republican state legislatures to reduce voter turnout, particularly among the poor and African-Americans. But Trump is also relying on intimidation.
For this he needs the armed and belligerent far right gangs he mobilised against the Black Lives Matter protests. Hence Trump’s appeal to one of these gangs, the Proud Boys, in the presidential debate a fortnight ago, to “stand back and stand by”.
What they’re standing by for is election day, 3 November. Trump’s son Donald Junior has called on “every able-bodied man, woman to join army for Trump’s election security operation”. Expect the far right militias to be out in force at polling stations to scare Biden voters away.
Thirdly, Trump is in trouble. Catching Covid-19 was a disaster for him. Nor was it an accident.
The virus has been sweeping through the Republican hierarchy. They were packed together mostly unmasked three weeks ago to celebrate Trump’s nomination of the right wing judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
The US government’s chief infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci called it a “super-spreader event”.
Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic was already a big hit against him in the race with Biden. Now he’s caught. He’s fed the Covid-scepticism and conspiracy theories rife among his hardcore supporters.
So he has to be seen conquering the disease. Hence the absurd mask removing ceremonies that he’s been staging since his return to the White House. And he needs to campaign to mobilise his base to turn out to vote and terrorise the other side.
But Trump’s folly in ignoring social distancing rules and refusing for months to mask up has already done him a lot of damage, especially with older voters.
Even a close Republican ally like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell says he hasn’t been to the White House for months. He says he “personally didn’t feel that they were approaching the protection from this illness” appropriately.
In resuming campaigning while still apparently testing positive, Trump is endangering everyone near him. Already Biden is one percentage point ahead among over-65 voters in one key swing state, Florida. In 2016 Trump led among them by 17 points.
Many commentators now argue Trump is heading towards defeat. This may be true, though it would be very rash to write him off. But even if he does lose, he will leave behind him a terrible legacy. He has given the far right a confidence, a profile, and a national perspective that they lacked before.
Biden and the Democratic establishment offer nothing to counter them.