US President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing on the novel coronavirus.
CNN  — 

In the beginning, when the plague came, there was a moment.

An opportunity to unite. To rise above politics. To become a truly national leader in a time of crisis.

Maybe President Donald Trump even tried, belatedly declaring a national emergency, speaking to the nation from the Rose Garden. But it turns out that leading and uniting the country was an awful burden for the President to bear, especially when he was criticized for not paying enough attention to the virus as it headed our way. That was simply too much.

And so, predictably, comes the great admission of presidential failure: The return to the base strategy that got Trump elected the last time. We may be in the new normal heading into a new election, but it’s the old playbook.

Uniting was not ever going to be comfortable for Trump. After all, he’s made no new friends since he got 46% of the vote in 2016. And we know the presidency has not changed him.

So Trump, never comfortable as a truly national leader, is now back on terra firma: pandering to his supporters. Every day, he takes center stage at his newest favorite platform, the coronavirus briefing. And every day, he touts his self-described success. And he prods the open-the-country protesters to continue to protest because, as he once said, they “like me.” And he wants them to continue to do just that.

Think about it: We now have a President who winks at protesters asking state governments to circumvent the national guidelines he himself approved. It’s the government, after all, and you can’t trust the deep state. Even if he runs the deep state.

And so the virus has become the latest political barometer: Are you with Trump and the open-the-country-up protesters? Is this all China’s fault? Is Trump right to get tougher on would-be immigrants? Is this really a blue-state urban problem and not mine? Why does the press keep hounding the President? Why trust these scientists who work for the government? And on and on.

But here’s the problem: Trump’s daily pats on his own back aren’t helping him. Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution, who is tracking the President’s polling, points out that for the two weeks after Trump declared a national emergency, the President’s approval increased. But as the briefings have worn on and on, his numbers have declined.

It seems the more people watch him during this pandemic, the less they like what they see. But Trump can’t stop himself. There’s no self-editing, no off-switch, no self-awareness.

He’ll keep running the old populist playbook because that’s all he knows how to do.

The difference this time is that the question of “whom do you trust” is not theoretical. It’s a matter of life and death. Funny how that focuses the mind.