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Trump Is Cornered. Here’s Why.

The pandemic. Race relations. Unemployment. And more—including his own unlikable self.
July 13, 2020
Trump Is Cornered. Here’s Why.
A Caucasian protester wearing a mask holds a homemade sign that reads, "November Is Coming" in reference to voting in people that can change polices and put in legislation to remove racism as they walk the streets of New York City. Photographed in the Manhattan Borough of New York on June 14, 2020, USA. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

The electoral dynamics have already hardened. Donald Trump will lose if everyone who wants to vote can. His remaining hope is to choose his own electorate.

Amid a deadly and economically ruinous pandemic, he is driving a strategy aimed only at arousing his base—chiefly by inflaming white racial grievances and cultural resentment. He seeks not to heal the wounds exacerbated by George Floyd’s murder, but to exploit them.

Reprising the imaginary “carnage” he promised to end in his hallucinatory inaugural address, he recasts himself as Superman in a cartoon dystopia where “angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities.” To do so, he converts predominantly peaceful protests into an epidemic of disorder, as if this were America in 1968. But it is not 1968—or even 2016.

Our demographics have changed: The U.S. population was above 83 percent non-Hispanic white in 1968, compared to 60 percent today. Our incumbent president is himself an agent of chaos, rhetorical and real, who used troops to clear Lafayette Square so that he could stage a photo op while holding aloft a Bible.

That’s what made his jeremiad at Mount Rushmore so remarkable. As historian Michael Beschloss told the New York Times: “Most presidents in history have understood that when they appear at a national monument, it’s usually a moment to act as a unifying chief of state, not a partisan divider.” Instead, Trump chose the rhetoric of culture war. “I don’t think it will work” in 2020, Beschloss added, “because what he is trying to do is pretend that the situation is better than it is.”

The core of Trump’s campaign is not about his presidency—it’s about race. As Michelle Goldberg wrote, “Trump sees clearly—more clearly than most of his party—that racism is the main thing he has to offer.”

Indeed. What other president would tweet videos of a supporter shouting “white power,” a white couple aiming guns at peaceful protesters, and blacks assaulting whites; embrace Confederate monuments; threaten to veto a defense bill which would rename military bases commemorating Confederate generals; call the slogan Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate”; and propose to scrap an Obama-era fair-housing regulation at “the request of many great Americans who live in the Suburbs.”

This is not simply a gross abuse of his office; it is politically tone-deaf. Says pollster Cornell Belcher: “What’s different today is the upward of 70 percent of Americans [who] think racism is a problem in this country.”

A Monmouth University poll conducted in late May and early June puts that number at 76 percent, including 71 percent of whites. A CBS poll from the same time shows that a majority of Americans believe that police are “more likely to use deadly force against a black person” than against a white person. As for Confederate monuments, a Quinnipiac poll shows that registered voters favor 52-44 their removal from public spaces—a 19-point swing since 2017.

The Pandemic and the Polls

But Trump’s presidency has been swamped by COVID-19—yet another reason why his race-baiting, a loser in itself, is terminally deficient. The pandemic has become a metaphor for Trump’s suffocating incompetence, mendacity, and self-absorption.

Four months after Trump blithely assured us that the pandemic would “disappear,” it has taken over 135,000 American lives. Cases are spiking in broad swaths of America previously spared; every week sees a record for new cases. While death rates had fallen since the peak in mid-April, they have now ominously begun to trend upwards again, and public health experts forecast a resurgence.

Cities in crisis—like New Orleans, Phoenix, and San Antonio—are woefully short of testing capacity. Red states like Texas, Florida, and Arizona which, at Trump’s urging, reopened too quickly are reimposing public health restrictions. Proactive states like California and Washington are suffering as well.

That’s on Trump. In May, a Columbia University study estimated that had the United States begun limiting social contacts one week earlier, roughly 35,000 lives would have been saved through early May; starting two weeks earlier would have prevented 1 million cases and 58,000 deaths through early May.

But from January to mid-March, Trump dismissed the pandemic as of negligible concern. Thereafter, obsessing on how its economic impact would affect his re-election campaign, he treated COVID-19 primarily as a cultural and political problem, blaming Democrats for the public health measures his own government had prescribed. He even mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask. Only this past weekend—more than six weeks after Biden and millions of other Americans started wearing masks—did Trump finally wear a mask in public, and even that reportedly required his staff “pleading” with him.

His remarks about masks have been far from his only idiocy. Trump’s public statements would comprise a litany of buffoonery were his derelictions not so lethal. A few early examples:

Such preposterous misstatements became a case study in political malpractice. In mid-May he proclaimed: “We have met the moment and we have prevailed.” “He’s declaring victory,” former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe observed in wonder. “We’re going to use his own words. . . . That will sink him.”

But, like a panicky salesman, Trump cannot stop himself: “When you have all those tests, you have more cases”—“99 percent of which are totally harmless.” As the coronavirus surged, he announced on the Fourth of July that “our strategy is moving along well. . . . We’ve learned how to put out the flame.” In keeping with the pattern of his entire career, he cannot stop himself from the grotesque exaggerations and outright lies of a carnival barker.

But pandemics don’t lie. Ever more Americans know someone who has sickened or died because of COVID-19—three million and counting. On June 30, Anthony Fauci said: “We are now having 40-plus thousand new cases a day. I would not be surprised if we go up to 100,000 day if this is not turned around.”

In the two weeks since Fauci made that remark, our new daily case reports have risen to about 60,000 per day, and one day last week surpassed 68,000. The EU has barred American travelers as a public health risk. Yet Trump blustered: “We’re very much going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools.”

While everyone wants to reopen schools—safely—Trump has no plan for doing so. This is utterly irresponsible: Young children cannot truly grasp health protocols and, the New York Times reports, one-third of all public school teachers are 50 or older.

Further, scientists express deep concerns about transmission in classrooms. Yet Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding for schools that don’t reopen.

Bullying parents, kids and teachers at the risk of their health is not a winning strategy. Here, yet again, Trump’s ineradicable narcissism overwhelms presidential or political judgment.

A CBS poll of U.S. adults in late June showed that 62 percent of respondents believed that our efforts to combat the virus were going “badly.” A Reuters/Ipsos survey of U.S. adults from late June—at which point it was just becoming clear that the trend lines for new cases was pointing back up—found that only 38 percent of Americans approved of Trump’s response to the pandemic, while 57 disapproved. Biden nails Trump’s problem: “All his whining and self-pity. This pandemic didn’t happen to him. It happened to all of us. And his job isn’t to whine about it. His job is to do something about it, to lead.”

Healthcare Voters

A glaring example of Trump’s political empathy gap is a crucial issue underscored by the pandemic: healthcare.

Millions of people have lost employer-based health insurance during the pandemic—a number which, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated in May, could reach 27 million. Trump and his party have no plan to help them.

In fact, he has insisted on asking the Supreme Court to invalidate Obamacare, which would strip perhaps 23 million more Americans of their health insurance—while ending such popular provisions as protection for people with pre-existing conditions and coverage of young adults on their parents’ health insurance. Yet, despite repeated promises, Trump has never produced a plan to replace Obamacare.

With Election Day looming, his mishandling of healthcare amid a pandemic is stunningly self-destructive. But Trump’s vaunted political instincts were proven illusory in 2018—when the Democrats clobbered him on . . . healthcare. Trump’s supposed genius, it transpires, cloaks an incapacity to learn.

Historically Disliked

In 2020, a critical proportion of Americans is growing sick of him. In Vanity Fair, Peter Hamby writes of Trump: “It’s not that he’s inhabiting a bad political environment. He created the bad political environment—out of thin air—just by being himself.”

And what he is, is tiresome. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll of registered voters from April 2019, nearly half of the respondents, 46 percent, opined that Trump’s constant tweeting hurts his chances for re-election—more than twice those who say it helps. And 7 in 10 said that Trump uses Twitter too much. A more recent Economist/YouGov survey, from six weeks ago, found similar results, with this additional data point: 62 percent of registered voters say they believe Trump’s tweets half or less than half of the time, including 42 percent who say they “never” believe his tweets.

Yet Trump’s fractious campaign cannot control him. Repeatedly, he veers off message, stinting his only strong suit—his supposed economic stewardship—to traffic in juvenile insults and racist dog whistles.

“He’s really the campaign manager at the end of the day,” Jared Kushner told the New York Times. “Our job is to present him with data, give him ideas, help him structure. And then when he makes decisions on where he wants to go, the campaign was designed to be like a custom suit for him.”

More like a dunce cap. On ABC’s This Week, Chris Christie admonished that if Trump “doesn’t change course, both in terms of the substance of what he’s discussing and the way that he approaches the American people, then he will lose.”

Contrary to Trump’s illusions, he cannot win by replicating the campaign of 2016. Because he was running against an unusually polarizing opponent, many voters whom Trump discomfited nonetheless took a flyer. And he benefited from two extraordinary strokes of good fortune: the release by WikiLeaks of hacked emails from the Clinton campaign, and James Comey’s last-minute announcement of a renewed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s own emails.

Hamby distills the real lesson of 2016: “The boring reality is that Trump won a margin-of-error race between two historically disliked candidates, in hindsight the equivalent of a .300 hitter getting on base with a dinky single into left field. He has no magical powers.”

Other factors, opines Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in the Atlantic, distinguish 2016 from 2020. Trump’s white identity politics is narrowing in appeal—as with race, there has been a shift among most Americans in favor of legal immigration. And Biden’s campaign will not neglect Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Unlike 2016, the Democratic left is uniting behind the party’s nominee. In a June New York Times/Siena College poll, Nate Cohn notes, Bernie Sanders supporters in six battleground states prefer Biden over Trump by 87 percent to 4 percent, while Elizabeth Warren’s backers in those states choose Biden by 96 percent to nothing. In 2016, about 6 percent of the electorate chose third-party or protest candidates; in 2020, the figure seems unlikely to reach half that.

Nor does Biden suffer the opprobrium that so badly damaged Clinton. Widely perceived as reasonable, likable, and politically inclusive, he is avoiding the left-wing poison pills that Trump has sought to exploit—like “defund the police.” “Biden is just not scary enough for Trump,” David Axelrod told Frank Bruni. “He’s culturally inconvenient.”

Thus Biden attracts voters Clinton could not. As Sarah Longwell wrote here on The Bulwark last week, after three years of conducting focus groups among women who reluctantly voted for Trump in 2016, “It cannot be overstated how much better of a candidate Joe Biden is for attracting disaffected Republican voters—especially women—than any of the other Democrats who ran this cycle.”

Another line of attack—that Biden is decrepit and senescent—isn’t taking. A Monmouth University poll conducted in late June showed that more voters are concerned that Trump, rather than Biden, lacks the physical and mental stamina to be president. A likely subtext, one suspects, is intuitive concern over Trump’s emotional stability.

While the deeper fervor among Trump’s supporters than Biden’s has potential implications for in-person turnout during a pandemic, Trump himself functions as a turnout machine—for Democrats. This was true in 2018, and is likely truer now. As Republican strategist Ron Christie characterized Trump’s behaviors to the New York Times:

It’s almost self-defeating. . . . People are exhausted. The president, with every tweet, every insult, will move himself out of favor with the demographic that he needs the most, which is the independent.

That underscores perhaps the biggest difference between 2016 and 2020: As the incumbent, Trump is hemorrhaging support.

According to the 2016 exit polls, Trump carried whites by 20 percent; recent polling shows him ahead by only 5 percent. Among whites without college degrees, Trump won by 37 points in 2016; recent polls show him ahead by only 21 points. And while Trump took white seniors by 19 percent in 2016, Biden now nearly matches him among those category of voters.

One reason is that white Americans believe, quite reasonably, that Trump has worsened race relations. The latest ABC/Ipsos poll puts his approval rating on race at a dismal 32 percent. Here, again, credit Trump’s behavior after George Floyd’s murder. Writes Longwell of her focus groups: “It wasn’t until the killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests that the bottom started to drop out.”

Trump’s loss of white support is especially acute among college-educated women. In the 2016 exit polls, they preferred Clinton over Trump by only 7 points. As Aaron Blake notes in the Washington Post, recent polls have them preferring Biden by 28 points, 29 points, and a stunning 39 points. And while Trump still leads among non-college educated white women, his support has declined: In 2016, they preferred him by 27 percent, today they prefer him by about 15 percent.

Critically, the Times/Siena College poll shows that among self-described independents—a group he won by 4 percent in 2016—Trump is trailing Biden by 18 percent. Observed political scientist William G. Mayer to the Times: “I know Republicans who think that Trump is somehow incredibly savvy politically and knows just what he’s doing. I strongly disagree. I think he’s needlessly alienating a whole lot of people who might otherwise be inclined to vote for him.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s negatives are brutal: stuck in the mid-50s. In the last two months, his approval ratings declined to the low 40s. This is the territory that doomed the last two incumbents who lost re-election campaigns, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter.

In several recent national polls, Biden leads Trump by double digits. More salient, polls show Biden leading in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona. While caution suggests that Trump cannot be in quite so deep a ditch, other battleground polls concur.

A key is that, in swing states as elsewhere, he is losing seniors. One major reason is his mismanagement of the coronavirus. But another is that older Americans simply dislike his noxious persona in their president.

Unemployment and the Economy

Trump’s residual area of strength is the economy. This is no small thing. As Hamby adjures:

For most of the pandemic, with unemployment hovering above Great Recession-era levels, and with the incumbent’s overall job approval rating underwater, Trump has been running anywhere from 6 to 10 points ahead of Biden on the question of who would better handle the economy.

Focus groups from April, Hamby elaborates, further suggested that Biden has three economic disadvantages. Participants thought Trump better equipped to lead us out a recession; considered Biden’s economic agenda sketchy; and were inclined to blame unemployment on the pandemic rather than Trump.

Nonetheless, Hamby notes, recent polls show Trump’s edge on the economy eroding. And, last Thursday, Biden introduced an agenda calculated to preempt Trump’s economic nationalism.

With the economy his only selling point, Trump cannot resist overselling it. After a better-than-expected jobs report in early June, Trump proclaimed: “Now we’re opening, and we’re opening with a bang. . . . This is a rocket ship. . . . Today is probably, if you think of it, the greatest comeback in American history.” After all, he tweeted a few days later, “I built the greatest economy in the World, the best the U.S. has ever had. I am doing it again!”

Back in the real world, the New York Times reported Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s pandemic-related skepticism in late June:

“A full recovery is unlikely until people are confident that it is safe to re-engage in a broad range of activities,” Mr. Powell told a House committee, adding that a second wave “could force people to withdraw” and “undermine public confidence, which is what we need to get back to lots of kinds of economic activity that involve crowds.”

In truth, the coronavirus is far too multifaceted to serve Trump’s economic triumphalism. In the ABC/Ipsos survey of American adults conducted last week, only 33 percent approve Trump’s handling of the pandemic—down 8 percent from three weeks earlier; 59 percent said they believe that the U.S. economy is reopening too quickly.

This shift in opinion reflects a reality that permeates the economy and is apparent in the headlines. After Macy’s reopened stores in May, the Washington Post reports, its sales sputtered, causing executives to believe that a full recovery could take until 2022. At 11 percent, unemployment remains worse than any point during the Great Recession. And the resurgence of COVID-19 is stifling recovery in major states like Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California.

“The virus drives the economics,” economist Betsey Stevenson told the New York Times, adding that if cases continued to rise, as health officials warn, “we’re not going to have people going back to work.”

Further, the childcare crisis could hamper parents from returning to fully productive work. As economist Michael Bloom told the Washington Post, “You can’t run an economy with so many people aged 30 to 45 missing.”

Finally, states and localities have already laid off or furloughed 1.5 million employees. Without a massive federal bailout, the losses in public employment will grow exponentially—further damaging the private economy.

Absent a miracle, Trump won’t get the broad and accelerated recovery he needs to survive.

He has only one way out: pursuing voter suppression through any stratagem that limits Biden’s vote—like relentlessly exploiting the pandemic. That’s why he’s crying voter fraud and decrying voting by mail. As he flails in quicksand and self-pity, we can expect him to resort to more desperate measures.

Curbing democracy will become what November is about.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.