As America inches towards a November thriller
Joe Biden (left) and Donald Trump in the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, September 29 (Photo: Getty Images)
DONALD TRUMP WAS extremely lucky to win the presidency in 2016. He scraped to an almost freakishly narrow victory in the Electoral College (the idiosyncratic system America’s Founding Fathers devised to collate results from individual states) despite having won three million fewer votes than his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. His total winning margin in the three Midwestern states that sealed his shock victory was less than 80,000 votes. Almost anything could have affected such a narrow result—a less damning headline for Clinton in the Pennsylvanian press the previous day; a less aggressive Russian social media campaign in support of Trump; a strategically placed rain-shower.
He was the most unpopular candidate ever to capture the White House. He had won much less than half the vote in essentially a two-horse race. To give himself a reasonable shot at being re-elected, in the general election fast-approaching on November 3rd, you might think the President would have tried to expand his support a little. Instead, he has dedicated the past three-and-a-half years to doing the opposite.
By throwing red meat to his right-wing base—by caging the children of illegal immigrants, insulting racial protestors and so forth, even as he hammers away at the Democrats—Trump has made himself the most adored Republican leader since polling records began. Nine in 10 Republicans are all for him. But the Democrats are correspondingly united in fierce opposition. And, as Clinton demonstrated in 2016, there are more of them.
Hardly anyone who did not vote for Trump four years ago has since crossed over to him. He is the only president on record never to have an approval rating above 50 per cent. And given that his Republican coalition—which is older and much whiter than the better-educated, more upwardly mobile and racially diverse Democratic base—is shrinking as a proportion of the population at large, his base-rallying strategy may be doomed to deliver even fewer votes than he scraped to power with in 2016.
This seemingly ineluctable political reality—shaped by demographic forces and how badly Trump has negotiated them—are the political subtext to the turbulence, noise and scandal of his administration. A week after his inauguration, back in January 2017, 43 per cent of Americans approved of Trump; almost four years later, 42 per cent do. It adds up to a picture of remarkable stasis amid the rancour and flux the President so often generates. And it seems all the more remarkable currently given how historically eventful (not in a good way, mostly) the past year in American politics has been.
To note just a few of those events, in January, Trump became only the third president in the 230-year history of his office to suffer the disgrace of an impeachment trial (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were his forerunners in shame). His offence, which he essentially admitted, was to have tried to arm-twist his Ukrainian counterpart to smear his likely—and, as it has transpired, actual—Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, with bogus corruption allegations. He was acquitted only because all but one Republican Senator (the party’s previous presidential candidate, Mitt Romney) were too fearful of the party’s rank-and-file to vote against the President.
There is little reason to expect Trump’s first TV debate against Biden to have much impact on the race. That is despite the fact that the debate was without doubt the most horrendous political duel since the format was invented. Trump had been expected to go in hard against Biden. That is his only mode. But nobody was prepared for his crazed performance
It was by any historical lights a huge scandal. Yet Trump’s approval ratings barely flickered during it; and the impeachment has since been almost erased from public debate by the even bigger scandals and events that have followed.
After Covid-19 first showed up in America in late January, Trump initially tried to downplay the dangers of the virus. He dismissed it as his political opponents’ “latest hoax”. At other times, he assured Americans that it had been successfully controlled. It was a lie. As the chronicler of presidents, Bob Woodward, revealed in his latest tome last month, Trump privately acknowledged the deadliness of the virus weeks before those comments.
As the Covid case-count climbed in New York and other cities, he then turned to blaming local Democratic leaders, even as he raged against the economically stifling measures they took to contain the virus, and also on occasion offered his own quack medical advice. His management of the most serious public health crisis America has faced in decades could scarcely have been worse.
Over 200,000 Americans have now succumbed to the disease. Some models predict that the death-count could double by the end of the year. And the economic toll of efforts to restrict the virus has pitched the country into another giant crisis. Unemployment, which was at a record low before the pandemic, is at 8 per cent. It is estimated that over half of the thousands of businesses that closed because of the plague will never reopen. Around 100,000 firms have already gone bust.
And how have these calamities affected Trump’s political standing? Scarcely at all. Last October, head-to-head polling between the President and Biden showed the Democratic former Vice President ahead by 50 per cent to 43 per cent. His lead over Trump is almost exactly the same today. The vast majority of Americans appear to have made their mind up about their hyper-divisive President, one way or the other, long ago. And nothing, for better or worse, seems able to shift it.
And still the political gods seem intent on reproving that point, again and again, with ever more scandals and upheaval. Just the past couple of weeks have provided more controversy than Barack Obama’s squeaky-clean administration generated over the course of eight years. Again, to mention just a few highlights, they have recently included the death-in-office of a revered liberal Supreme Court judge, Ruth Bader Ginsburg—and Trump’s and his party’s decision to ram a hard-right conservative replacement through Congress before the election. This shattered a pre-election precedent that they themselves set in 2016, when another judge died in office, and has therefore outraged the Democrats beyond belief. A surge in cash donations to the centre-left campaign groups—including almost $100 million in a little more the day after Ginsburg’s death—points to how stirred up Democrats are by this. (Republicans would rather have a friendly judge, fighting their corner in the culture wars, than any amount of money.)
The death-in-office of a revered liberal Supreme Court judge, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Trump’s and his party’s decision to ram a hard-right conservative replacement through Congress before the election shattered a pre-election precedent that they themselves set in 2016, when another judge died in office
Then late last week the New York Times published the content of 20 years’ worth of Trump’s tax records—which he had tried to keep hidden for, it turns out, understandable reasons. An enormous part of Trump’s appeal to Republican voters, back in 2016, rested on his ability to carry himself off as a genius businessman. But that is not what his tax records suggest he is. Having declared losses of almost a billion dollars in the 1990s, after the collapse of his heavily indebted casino business, Trump succeeded in building a new fortune on the back of his reality-TV turn on The Apprentice. Yet, playing a successful businessman again turned out to be much easier than being one in real-life.
TRUMP SPLURGED HIS new wealth on golf courses and hotels—which have been leaking money ever since. He has reported losses to the Internal Revenue Service of over $300 million on his golf courses alone. This has allowed him to pay no income tax in most of the last 15 years. In 2016 and 2017, the years he won and then assumed the presidency, Trump—a self-claimed billionaire—paid $750 in income tax. He has meanwhile racked up current debts of over a billion dollars—including some $400 million that he has personally guaranteed and which are due to be repaid over the next four years. No wonder Trump appears so acutely desperate to retain his current job. As soon as he leaves the immunising security of the Oval Office, his private affairs are liable to become even messier than they appear to be now.
Did even that move the needle on his poll numbers? Of course not. Nor did the arrest this week of Brad Parscale, his former campaign manager. Parscale was sacked by Trump in July after failing to pack out a rally for the President in the middle of the pandemic. (The former college basketball star, who is also reported to have issued campaign contracts to companies he owned worth $40 million, was reported to have been drunk, suicidal and in possession of many guns at the time of his arrest.) So there is little reason to expect an even bigger rumpus this week, over Trump’s first TV debate against Biden, to have much impact on the race.
That is despite the fact that the debate was without doubt the most horrendous political duel since the format was invented (to pit Richard Nixon against John F Kennedy in 1960). Trump had been expected to go in hard against Biden. That is his only mode. And, over the months in which he has watched his standing decline, even as Covid-19 has limited his ability to campaign and so try to recover it, his frustrations have plainly been mounting.
But nobody, including the President’s own debate preparation team, was prepared for his crazed performance.
From the get-go, he showed no interest in debating Biden. Rather Trump persistently interrupted and insulted his opponent. He questioned Biden’s intelligence and levelled unsubstantiated allegations of corruption at his surviving son. Wholly ill-informed and unprepared, he accused him of propounding the hard-left economic policies of the leftist candidates—such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—that the moderate Biden defeated in the Democratic primaries. By one count, Trump interrupted Biden 75 times over the course of the 90-minute performance. When the moderator—Chris Wallace of Fox News—complained, Trump start chuntering against him too.
This is not over. Trump is struggling and his failure to reach beyond his core support seems perverse. The polls show no inclination to move in his favour. Still, the intense loyalty of his supporters is such that Trump is still within striking distance, with a fair wind behind him, of being as competitive as he was in 2016
Worse, he also reprised his recent efforts to discredit an election that, it seems clear, he now fears he will lose. Trump repeated during the debate his baseless claim that the mail-in balloting many voters are already favouring due to the pandemic is “fraudulent”. He would not commit to accepting the election result and guaranteeing, if it came to it, a peaceful transfer of power.
Asked to condemn a violent white supremacist group that has already taken to the streets of Oregon and elsewhere in his name, he failed to do so. Instead he called on the group, named The Proud Boys, to “stand down, stand by”. Its members were triumphantly repeating the phrase on social media within minutes.
The following day, as Republican Congressmen gently suggested that Trump might wish to repudiate his white supremacist supporters more conclusively, the nonpartisan organisation that administers presidential debates announced that it would shortly announce changes to the format to try to keep Trump under control in the two remaining showdowns. Well, good luck to it with that.
This is not over. Trump is badly struggling and his failure to reach beyond his core support seems perverse in the circumstances. It must also be admitted that the polls, for so long unyielding, show no inclination to move in his favour: 94 per cent of likely voters claimed to have made up their minds irrevocably. Still, the intense loyalty of his supporters is such that Trump is still within striking distance, with a fair wind behind him, of being as competitive as he was in 2016. The Economist’s predictive model currently gives him only a 12 per cent chance of re-election. Just a two or three-point swing towards him could nonetheless dramatically alter those odds in Trump’s favour.
Nothing if not predictable, he has clearly signalled how he hopes to effect that swing. He will continue hammering and slandering Biden. He appears to believe the former Vice President, who at 77 is only three years older than he is, yet he wears his years more heavily, could crack. He will also attack his party, in the perhaps well-judged conviction that the Democrats are only ever a hare-brained left-wing proposal away from a calamitous loss of support.
Very likely, over the next two or three weeks, he will also unveil a long-awaited Covid vaccine (though it will be worth checking the specifics if he does). And Trump will, meanwhile, unforgivably, maintain his attack on the electoral system that is the basis of American democracy.
This is his insurance policy. In the event of a narrow defeat and a protracted vote count—which is likely, given the expected volume of mail-in ballots—he would hope either to bully his way to re-election or, more likely, convince his supporters that he has been robbed by shadowy forces of a legitimate victory. That could cement his hold on the right even in defeat. It is a worrying prospect. Then again, the ugly, febrile next month in America won’t be pretty either.