Trump's kryptonite is thinking he's Superman

The US president has failed to recast his fraught relationship with both the pandemic and the society it has devastated

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US President Donald Trump had a vision for how to stage his return to the White House following his time in hospital with Covid-19The New York Times reports. He planned to pretend to be exaggeratedly feeble, only to tear off his jacket and shirt to reveal a Superman costume. Apparently, he was dissuaded – but the very idea is troubling and revealing.

Mr Trump may be returning to health, but his campaign continues to suffer from self-inflicted wounds with little time left to bounce back before the November 3 election.

For many months uninterrupted, former vice president Joe Biden has maintained a national lead of roughly 8 to 12 percentage points. It is becoming hard to imagine how Mr Trump can break that remarkably stable and large advantage.

The debates were an obvious opportunity, but his aggressive and often obnoxious performance at the first event on September 29 was of no help. Last week's vice-presidential debate was more decorous, but did not yield a clear advantage to either Vice President Mike Pence or Mr Biden's running mate, Senator Kamala Harris. The star of the show was generally reckoned to be a large black fly that appeared attracted to Mr Pence.

Americans don't really vote for the vice president, so Mr Trump had a major opportunity in the second presidential debate scheduled for October 15. Yet he pulled out altogether when the organisers announced it would be held online rather than in person to prevent further infections. He may get one final chance to face Mr Biden at a third debate on October 22, but no one would be surprised if that is also cancelled.

Mr Trump's abrupt swings on the debate reflected his greater-than-usual volatility since his release from hospital, which some doctors have suggested may be linked to his treatment with dexamethasone, a powerful steroid that can produce agitation, mood swings and hyper-aggressiveness.

That, perhaps, could help explain his prolonged and mystifying steps over failed negotiations on a new pandemic disaster relief/economic stimulus bill with both fellow Republicans, who want a much smaller amount than he does, and Democrats, who are insisting on a larger intervention.

Although the president clearly needs a major relief initiative to aid his re-election, he suddenly and inexplicably called off negotiations with Democrats on Tuesday night. Two days later, however, he demanded that Congress "go big", and insisted he wanted an even more generous initiative than the Democrats. Both sides appear to have given up on him, Congress has gone into recess, and anything passed would probably now come into effect too late to affect the election.

A personal bout with the coronavirus presented the president with a golden opportunity to recast his fraught relationship with both the pandemic and the families and society it has devastated. Instead, as I suggested that he might in these pages last week, he continues to dismiss its significance, essentially maintaining that it is not a big deal, although it is now the third leading cause of death in the US after cancer and heart disease, and has claimed well more than 200,000 American lives.

The president shocked many by suggesting families of fallen soldiers may have given him the disease.

He gave conflicting accounts of his Covid-19 experience, which he called "a blessing from God".

On one hand, he confided that "I was not in great shape" and "I might not have recovered at all". On the other hand, he boasted: “I'm back because I'm a perfect physical specimen and I'm extremely young.” The president is 74.

In a video message aimed at older voters, Mr Trump implied this is a little-known secret, allowing that: “I'm a senior. I know you don't know that. Nobody knows that.”

He unleashed unparalleled vitriol at his adversaries, demanding that Attorney General William Barr arrest and prosecute his election opponent, Mr Biden; his 2016 election opponent, Hillary Clinton; and his predecessor, Barack Obama. He suggested he might personally take such action if need be. In the same interview, he described Ms Harris as a "monster" twice and a "communist" four times.

Astoundingly, Mr Trump and his allies responded to the thwarting of a conspiracy by right-wing extremists to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer by condemning her for criticising him in the past and appeared nonchalant about the terrorist plot itself.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, without much pushback, described the president as being in an “altered state".

Still, Americans typically look to their leaders for reassurance and stability in times of crisis. In recent months Mr Biden has been cultivating such an image, while Mr Trump has not. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pointedly added that he has avoided the White House since August 6 because of Mr Trump’s lax approach to preventing coronavirus infections.

Twenty-one confirmed cases are connected to the White House or the Trump campaign, which is resuming live mass events. Mr Pence held a large rally on Saturday at a Florida retirement centre with little social distancing and few masks. Mr Trump plans similar events soon.

So, many leading Republicans are now directing most available time and money to saving their Senate majority instead of Mr Trump’s dwindling re-election prospects. Party operatives are concentrating on restricting voting and preparing to contest ballots rather than winning him more votes.

Both campaigns are now fixated on Pennsylvania, because they agree Mr Trump will not win re-election if he loses there. But any candidate pinning all hopes on winning a single swing state without which national defeat is inevitable, and whose party operatives are reportedly focused on suppressing voting and contesting ballots, is plainly in deep trouble. And, of course, there is no Superman costume under his suit.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National