Trump and the Napoleonic rule of war

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Copious adjectives have been used to describe Donald Trump’s behavior. Restrained was rarely one of them—until recently. Below, I look at how the former president’s newfound discipline is actually a mirage. First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

A Fire That Needs Oxygen

When Joe Biden’s team proposed a June general-election debate—the earliest in modern presidential history—their theory was clear: Trump’s vitriol would make viewers recoil, while Biden would come across stately and presidential. Instead, Biden suffered arguably the worst night of his five-decade career, leaving 50 million viewers aghast. Not only is his 2024 candidacy now in jeopardy, but some people, including my colleague Adam Serwer, have made the compelling case that Biden should resign the presidency immediately.

Biden’s team spent months arguing that this election would be “about Donald Trump.” At the debate, Biden sought to remind voters of Trump’s woeful character (including his recent criminal conviction). But, as ever with Trump, many voters seem ready and willing to look past his litany of misdeeds—which means that the Biden campaign’s grand strategy is failing. “Donald Trump is on track, I think, to win this election. And maybe win it by a landslide and take with him the Senate and the House,” Democratic Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado said on CNN last night. “I think we could lose the whole thing, and it’s staggering to me.” My colleague Tim Alberta, who spent months digging into Trump’s reelection campaign, reported today that Republican strategists have arrived at the same conclusion.

Ever since the debate, Biden’s party has been engaged in a war within itself—part private, part public—over how to avert disaster. Some elected officials, including Representatives Adam Smith of Washington and Pat Ryan of New York, have called on Biden to withdraw (as has the actor and Democratic fundraiser George Clooney). But most people with true power and influence over the president have yet to plant a flag. Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina has both offered his support for Biden and spoken forcefully about who should take his place if he drops out (Vice President Kamala Harris). Today, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi dodged the question of whether she personally believes that Biden should remain the Democratic nominee, then offered a follow-up statement that was still vague.

Against all this mess and dysfunction, Trump’s standing among voters has only improved.

The Electoral College math is on Trump’s side. Biden cannot win the presidency without retaining his “blue wall” of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Currently, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Trump is ahead in all three states—he leads Biden by about two points in Wisconsin and a whopping five in Pennsylvania. (Trump’s lead in Michigan is narrower at approximately 0.6 points.) This time four years ago, Biden was ahead in all three—and ahead, in general. All Trump has to do, it would seem, is not screw everything up.

Trump was supposed to be center stage this week. After being found guilty on 34 counts of falsifying business records in New York, the former president was originally scheduled to be sentenced tomorrow, July 11, but his sentencing was delayed to September 18—assuming the courts do not decide that the recent Supreme Court ruling on presidential immunity renders such a sentencing moot. Instead of waltzing into the Republican National Convention as a freshly sentenced “political prisoner,” Trump is navigating a moment when Biden is dominating headlines.

Last night, I asked one of Trump’s longtime allies, the veteran GOP operative Roger Stone, how he thought Trump was approaching this particularly charged phase of the campaign. He replied with a quote often attributed to Napoleon: “Never interrupt your enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.” This idea—that Trump is shrewdly sitting back and avoiding attention while Biden flounders—has been parroted by many members of the media. But if you look a little closer, you’ll see that Trump is still being Trump.

Just listen to some of what the former president said at his rally in Doral, Florida, last night. Trump admitted he didn’t really know what NATO was before he was president, praised Hannibal Lecter again (“he was a lovely man”), lamented that Americans are falling out of love with bacon, and fearmongered that D.C. tourists get “shot, mugged, raped” when visiting the Jefferson Memorial. (He also revisited the most cringeworthy moment from the debate in the form of challenging Biden to an 18-hole golf match.)

But this wasn’t just one night of sloppy reversion. This past weekend, Trump made the ludicrous claim on Truth Social that “every one of the lawsuits” he is involved in, including the civil suits, “were started by Crooked Joe Biden and his fascist government for purposes of election interference.” This is a serious allegation, even for Trump. As ever, if these things were said by anyone except the former president, they would mark such a person as unfit for office and mentally unwell. But, as Dave Weigel and Benjy Sarlin of Semafor have noted, because Trump now exclusively uses his own niche social network instead of X, many of his strangest outbursts slip by unnoticed. Trump’s bombast simply doesn’t drive news cycles the way it did four or eight years ago.

Trump wants to wrest the spotlight back from Biden, even if that desire may end up hurting him. In order to win the election, Trump needs to keep peeling moderate and swing-state voters away from Biden. But he can’t help himself from being … himself. On Truth Social today, Trump called on House Republicans to subpoena “Deranged Jack Smith” and “look into his ILLEGAL INVESTIGATION of me immediately.” And although he had reportedly pushed to remove a national abortion ban from the 2024 Republican Party platform, today, Trump dialed into Brian Kilmeade’s Fox News radio show and boasted that “getting rid of Roe v. Wade” was “an incredible thing.”

Some have argued that, over the past two weeks, the media has “piled” on Biden. But the truth is that what’s plaguing Biden and the Democratic Party right now is an essential story worthy of rigorous coverage: Allies of the sitting president of the United States cannot agree on whether he is fit to serve another term, and the president, at the moment, is ignoring their concerns out of hubris.

Right now, the world feels like a fun-house mirror of the Trump era. Many Democratic leaders are saying one thing about their leader in public and the opposite in private. Trump, meanwhile, merely has to stand back and watch the fire burn, but he can’t even do that. Trump himself is still a bigger fire, and all fires need oxygen.


Today’s News

  1. American-made F-16 jet fighters are now being transferred to Ukraine, and NATO allies pledged to send Kyiv dozens of air-defense systems.
  2. A federal judge seemed likely to dismiss Rudy Giuliani’s bankruptcy case, citing “transparency” issues; he said he expected to make a final ruling by Friday.
  3. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez filed articles of impeachment against Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, accusing them of failing to recuse themselves from certain cases and not disclosing gifts they’ve received while on the bench. The effort is likely to fail in the Republican-controlled House.


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Evening Read

Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Diane Bondareff / Invision / AP.

Alice Munro Was a Terrible Mother

By Xochitl Gonzalez

By now, we should be used to this story: A beloved artist is undone by their own bad behavior, knocked off their pedestal, their works removed to a remote shelf. Since the #MeToo movement began, publishing, just like film and music, has seen its share of idols abandoned. But the distress over the Nobel Prize–winning author Alice Munro has a different tenor.

Read the full article.

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Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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