US President Donald Trump at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, July 3 (Photo: AP)
INDEPENDENCE DAY IS traditionally a festival of hope and soaring national pride for Americans—celebrated with fireworks and parades, baseball and gargantuan overeating. This July 4th was more muted. There were plenty of burgers and fireworks. But most parades were cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.The baseball season is likewise on hold. And in a pair of speeches this weekend—one at Mount Rushmore against the petrified backdrop of the founding fathers, the other outside the White House—President Donald Trump offered Americans anything but hope. He promised them, worn down as they are by the relentless divisiveness, scandal and culture warring he has brought to American public life, much more of the same. “We are now in the process of defeating the radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators, the looters and people who in many instances have absolutely no clue what they are doing,” he thundered outside the White House.
The country, to be sure, is beset by three mutually reinforcing crises: the pandemic, which has so far claimed over 130,000 American lives, its dire economic fallout and the mass protests for racial justice that have roiled America since the death of George Floyd in a Minnesotan gutter six weeks ago. Yet where Trump’s predecessors—probably without exception—would have sought to reassure and guide Americans through these fires, he appears determined to pour petrol on them. At Mount Rushmore he slammed the protestors—the vast majority of whom have been peaceful—as “angry mobs” seeking to “unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities”. He characterised a related campaign against memorials to the slave-owning heroes of America’s racist past as intended to “end America”.
Talk about doubling down. In his inauguration speech—three-and-a-half tumultuous years ago—Trump claimed to be taking over the helm of a country teetering on the brink of anarchy and collapse. “American carnage”, he called it. It was unprecedented (“some weird shit” was how the previous Republican president, George W Bush, described Trump’s diagnosis). It was also untrue: the economy was strong then and the unemployment and crime rates both approaching record lows. Yet it at least made a sort of tactical sense: by exaggerating the country’s problems, Trump set the bar for his presidency extraordinarily low. But what on earth is he thinking of now?
He appears to be basing his case for re-election in November on the fact that America has become significantly more divided, more riotous and economically damaged over the course of his tenure than it was even in his original dystopian description. Trump was supposed to ‘Make America Great Again’. He was not supposed to break it.
Perhaps if more Americans had confidence in his ability to fix their giant problems, his tactics would look shrewd. But he is one of the most unpopular and least trusted presidents ever to run for a second term. He is the first president never to have had an approval rating of 50 per cent since modern polling began. He is currently approved of by only 40 per cent of Americans and disapproved of by 56 per cent—many of whom loathe him.
He is faring similarly in head-to-head polling against his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. The former deputy to Barack Obama currently leads Trump by around nine points in national polls. And he is beating him by substantial, though smaller, margins in the dozen ‘swing states’ that decide presidential elections. For example, Biden is ahead by 6.5 points in Wisconsin, one of a trio of Midwestern states that Trump squeaked in in 2016 and the one considered likeliest to vote for the president again. He is up by 3.5 points in Arizona, which has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1952, save when it plumped for Bill Clinton in the anomalously crowded 1992 election. He is leading Trump by five points in Florida, which has picked the winning candidate in 12 of the past 13 presidential elections. And bad as things look for the president in these states, they could get worse, with America’s unchecked Covid-19 pandemic surging in the south and west. On July 8th the country recorded over 60,000 new infections in a 24-hour period—a record high.
Trump appears to be basing his case for re-election in November on the fact that America has become significantly more divided, more riotous and economically damaged over the course of his tenure than it was even in his original dystopian description
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Even before the pandemic struck, Trump’s poor ratings made him a weak incumbent. But his current standing represents a dramatic deterioration. His prospects began to cloud in March, when the Democrats rallied behind Biden, an unexciting but inoffensive centrist, over more radical alternatives such as Bernie Sanders. Most head-to-head polling showed Trump trailing the former vice president narrowly at the time. But given the strength of the economy, the advantages of running as an incumbent and the advantages Republican candidates enjoy from the electoral college system, most punters on betting markets made him a narrow frontrunner nonetheless. His slide has been caused by a subsequent erosion of his previously impregnable Republican base.
Older voters, who tend to be white and non-college-educated, appear to have recoiled against Trump’s handling of the coronavirus. They are, of course, the group likeliest to die of the disease. Little wonder Trump’s Covid-19-induced histrionics have gone down badly with them. He initially sought to dismiss the virus as a hoax then, after briefly taking it seriously, by turn downplayed it and promoted bleach injections and other whacko cures for it. Meanwhile, other Republican suggested American oldies might be willing to sacrifice themselves to the virus in order to avoid disruption to the economy.“There are more important things than living,” said one of them, Dan Patrick, the Republican Number Two in Texas, which saw 10,000 new coronavirus cases in a 24-hour period this week.
It seems the president’s erstwhile elderly supporters were on board with that. Unless Trump can reverse their flow to Biden, his chances will look grim. Older voters are the most assiduous voters there are and potentially decisive in every battleground state—including especially Florida and the all-important Midwestern trio of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Their seepage from Trump is the single main reason an election forecasting model devised by The Economist currently gives him only a 10 per cent chance of victory. In a recent interview on Fox News, even he acknowledged the hole he is in. “Joe Biden is gonna be your president because some people don’t love me, maybe,” he said. Meanwhile, strategists in both parties are daring to air a possibility that the president could lose in a landslide big enough to subsume his party, thereby handing control of the Senate and many state legislatures and governors’ mansions to the Democrats. Analysts on Wall Street were reported this week to be for the first time pricing Biden’s economic agenda into their risks assessments.
Trump’s parlous position makes his escalating of the culture war seem all the more risky. His fleeing supporters are scared and sick of the endless conflict he stirs. So why is he not instead doing as most of his party’s strategists are urging him to—and calming down, addressing the pandemic seriously, responding to his voters fears?
Trump’s campaign advisors are said to have assured him that, in the end, his wobbly former supporters will recoil against the inevitable excesses of the racial justice protestors, the reluctance of Biden to condemn them and the President’s alternative promise of law and order
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The most prosaic explanation is that he seems unable to do otherwise, at least for any sustained period of time. Trump is an aggrieved histrionic, committed to an eternal quest for attention and validation and always ready for the conflict he stirs. This has been the tenor of his entire career—including three marriages, 11 bankruptcy proceedings and, according to a count by USA Today, over 3,500 legal ones. According to a forthcoming diagnosis of the president’s mental state, to be published next week, he displays all nine clinical criteria of narcissism. Albeit, writes Mary L Trump, that ‘Donald’s pathologies are so complex and his behaviours so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neurophysical tests that he’ll never sit for’. Mary L Trump writes with some authority. She has a PhD in psychology and is the president’s only niece.
Yet another explanation for Trump’s destructive tactics is that, amazingly as it might seem, they could actually work. The president’s campaign advisors are said to have assured him that, in the end, his wobbly former supporters will recoil against the inevitable excesses of the racial justice protestors, the reluctance of Biden to condemn them and the president’s alternative promise of law and order. These advisors are, of course, having to work with the grain of their candidate’s intemperance, so their predictions warrant caution. Even so, this scenario is not infeasible. Moreover, the effective polling gap between the president and Biden is narrower than it seems.
That is thanks to the Republican advantage in the electoral college, a system of vote counting designed to ensure that every state has a role in electing the president. It favours Republicans because their support tends to be spread widely across the country. By contrast the Democrats’ is more concentrated in a handful of big coastal states where they win, in effect, by wastefully big margins (how they would love to transport a few thousand of their California or New York voters to Florida or Wisconsin). The result is that Trump could conceivably win re-election with only around 45 per cent of the popular vote; he won in 2016 with 46 per cent. And to those who doubt a race-baiting message is capable of giving him the extra couple of points that would require, it need only be remarked that it has worked for Republicans in the past—including, again, for Trump in 2016.
A third possible explanation for Trump’s tripling down on divisiveness is more intriguing. It is that he would sooner shore up his base of aggrieved, white Americans at risk of losing the election, than risk disenchanting them with a more accommodative campaign message, which might anyway fail to deliver him victory. That is not to say Trump does not want to win, as some suggest: he plainly does. But if he cannot win, he wants at least to retain the valuable customer base and ongoing source of influence on the right that his ultra-loyal 40 per cent of the electorate represents. This was more or less his calculation in 2016, when he expected to lose to Hillary Clinton. He had already made plans to launch a television channel to cash in on his new political following in that event. And though now his calculation may be complicated by a new fear of post-presidential prosecution, in connection with the campaign finance and other alleged crimes unearthed during his tenure, it is essentially the same. He is a businessman-politician, who still thinks in terms of market share, not majorities. And 40 per cent of any market—let along America’s 140 million voters—is pretty good.
The veteran Biden must be unable to believe his good fortune. Over the past four months he has gone from being a disregarded laughing stock of the Democratic primary—too old, too gaffe-prone to keep pace with his jazzier rivals—to Trump’s underdog challenger; to America’s probable next president. And he has done so for the most part while being cocooned, for fear of the coronavirus, at his lakeside mansion in Delaware.
Joe Biden must be unable to believe his good fortune. Over the past four months he has gone from being a disregarded laughing stock of the democratic primary to Trump’s underdog challenger; to America’s probable next President
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He won the Democratic primary essentially by default. Notwithstanding his weaknesses as a campaigner, Democrats appeared to consider him the most reassuringly inoffensive mainstream candidate, who would be likeliest to unify the party against Trump. And that has turned out to be a reasonable bet. The hard left, despite having little love for Biden, has grumblingly submitted to him. However much its members may disdain his moderate healthcare policy, they know dissent could only help Trump—and the Democrats responsible for it would never be forgiven. Even before Covid-19 hit, this had made Biden look competitive. Now he is in the ascendant, despite having held no rally, delivered no memorable speech and sat for few interviews in the intervening four months.
Can the US presidency really be won with such little effort—by essentially not being Trump? Biden has another four months to find out. They will probably be eventful—with the president flailing and the pandemic gathering new pace. Yet Biden will probably spend them mostly padding around at home, conducting the odd Zoom meeting, reading his favourite Irish poetry and having pleasant lunches with his wife.