By Jeff Deist
Can Donald Trump, against all odds, still win in November?
It would be a remarkable political feat, on par with his stunning upset in 2016. A global pandemic (however statistically dubious) ravages the country, while riots ravage major US cities. The US economy produces a third less than it did a year ago, 40 million people are out of work and dependent on federal benefits, and 60 percent of all restaurants may go under. Millions of Americans will not pay rent, mortgages, or credit card bills for the foreseeable future. Millions of their kids will not go to school at all, or will simply stare at their teachers on Zoom. Others wear face shields and sit behind plastic screens at their desks. College football, a religion in America, may well be canceled altogether. Trump’s own Manhattan is a ghost town. And the media is intensely aligned against him.
Yet amid all this mayhem Trump’s poll numbers are no worse, and perhaps better, than they were heading into his contest with Hillary Clinton.
Is Trump feeling it? Since holding a series of desultory afternoon press conferences concerning covid earlier this spring, accompanied by the awful (and inexplicably still employed) Dr. Anthony Fauci, he has shrunk from the public eye. He surfaced in South Dakota over the Fourth of July for a rally in front of Mount Rushmore, and continues to spar with reporters, but his political buoyancy is not the same. America is exhausted, and the Trump Show lacks new scripts. Those scripts now issue from Fox News host Tucker Carlson: with 4.3 million viewers and searing monologues every night, he is the de facto populist voice Trump once was.
Surrounded by bad advisers and hamstrung by his own administration working at cross purposes, Trump is less than ninety days from the election with no clear message or direction. He appears particularly unfocused and seeking flattery from unaccountable insiders like Jared Kushner instead of serious counsel. Many people, including Donald Trump himself, seem to forget how and why he won the 2016 election.
His mandate, such as it was and thin as it was, looked something like this:
First, drain the Swamp. Injure the vested interests that dominate and leech off Beltway tax largesse; deny them their permanent sinecure. More than anything, his campaign represented a rebuke to the Uniparty, and a stark expression of populist contempt for technocratic elites. That contempt was and is entirely justified: the political class in America spent the last many decades screwing up education, medicine, foreign policy, diplomacy, money, banking, the US dollar, the federal budget, families, and social cohesion generally. The Bush/Clinton/Obama axis represented the worst profligacies of the managerial state, every bit as illiberal as Trump could ever pretend to be. That axis needed to be repudiated. It was never about Trump or his advisors or his policies; it was about an opportunity for 60 million Americans to go off-script and vote against the coronation of Clinton Part II.
That opportunity appears squandered. Forget Fauci and Kushner; what about Bolton, Mattis, Kelly, Tillerson, Scaramucci, McMaster, Haley, and all the rest? What Trump policy, however much bluster accompanies it, is qualitatively different than those of his predecessors? What federal department or agency is less powerful today than he found it? Where are the budget cuts to accompany what amount only to cuts in the growth rates of regulations? Single-year deficits are in the trillions. And what has he done to bring the damnable Federal Reserve Bank to heel, the one institution more responsible for government bloat and war finance than all others? Trump does not appear to have answers.
Second, pursue a meaningful America First foreign policy. This meant, in the eyes of voters, nothing less than the significant withdrawal of US troops from intractable and horrifically expensive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. The trillions of dollars spent in the post-9-11 period, the lives lost, the limbs severed and maimed, the PTSD, the suicides, none of it made sense anymore to the America public. How much will we spend on VA care over the coming decades, given the sheer number of damaged US soldiers, broken down by endless deployments? We blew up Iraq, really three countries held together by a thread, and don’t know how to fix it. We got bogged down in Afghanistan, learning nothing from the British or Soviet experiences. America wants and needs to get out of the Middle East.
The sheer futility of post–Cold War US foreign policy is tailor-made for Trump’s messaging, and not deeply partisan. He capitalized on this sentiment skillfully during his campaign, but has failed to produce significant troop withdrawals anywhere or touch a penny of “defense” spending. Worse, he has allowed the Bolton wing of the Uniparty ready access to the White House, and has been willing to entertain bellicose nonsense about Iran and China. Trump deserves credit for not taking the neoconservative bait to appear tough on Putin in an effort to deflect from the ludicrous Russiagate. But beyond that he has failed to fundamentally change even the rhetoric surrounding foreign policy, which remains hegemonic in tenor. A populist foreign policy requires humility, not hubris.
Third, act as a bodyguard for Middle America against the worst excesses of the American left. Some Americans just wanted a bodyguard against left academia, left media, and the secularist rout. They didn’t care if that bodyguard came with a graceless demeanor and rap sheet; in fact, they preferred it. Cultural and social issues were a mainstay of Trump’s 2016 coalition, but not in the sense they were for Pat Buchanan in 1996 or for social conservatives generally. Trump is not animated by religion or abortion; he is comfortable in cosmopolitan and diverse New York circles, and has little interest in relitigating gay marriage or similar battles. But he did promise to stand against campus radicalism, cancel culture, and the general perception of hostility toward flyover country emanating from the Left, particularly the media. Yet all of these things have become worse, not better, since Trump took office. In fact, the reaction to Trump has emboldened open socialists and Marxists to abandon incrementalism and demand wholesale revolution in America, right here and now. Antifa and Black Lives Matter, with open support from media, politicians, and corporate America, condone if not engineer riots and looting in cities. In sum, Christian Middle America feels less secure after four years of Trump, not more. All of this has happened under Trump’s watch.
What about the vaunted “alt-right,” supposedly the populist shock troops of the Trump movement? It was, and is, mostly a media creation. It needed to be created as an explanation for the rise of Trump in the first place. Journalists wanted to believe, fiercely, that a racist and fascist right was the only explanation for Trump, and especially for Clinton’s loss. So they defined a mass of people who (i) were not on the left and (ii) did not think Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich represented vital opposition to the Clinton dynasty as the alt-right. In fact, the moniker never applied to more than a few thousand angry outsized voices loosely connected on social media. They had no money, no political power or party, no platforms or donors. The alt-right certainly did not elect Donald Trump in 2016: the red states voted red, the blue states voted blue, and a few hundred thousand unhappy Baby Boomers in six swing states—many of whom earlier voted for Barack Obama—gave Trump razor-thin margins.
Those margins, and whether a real “silent majority” exists—as opposed to a mythical alt-right—will decide 2020.
So can Trump win in November? Certainly. He recently issued dubious executive orders which are sure to be popular, including an extension of $400 weekly federal unemployment benefits and a continued moratorium on evictions for federally subsidized housing. Biden and Harris are an uninspiring duo, and not likely to drive or inspire new voter turnout not already energized by standard Trump hatred. And sustained street violence continues to plague American cities, even smaller cities like Portland (Oregon) and Richmond, Virginia. Trump is not Nixon, and has not been able to project a “law and order” image onto his campaign like Nixon did in 1968. Still, the Left’s silence on riots—if not outright support—plays in Trump’s favor. Things may be bad in America, but pointing to scenes of burning and looting merely to say “I’m against that” is an opening even the most inept campaign can exploit. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler finally said as much recently, lamenting how rioters were creating “B-roll film” for Trump ads.
But populists need a status quo to oppose, and Trump now faces a new normal of incumbency.
Average voters do not blame him for covid; it would be preposterous to think the Left would not attack him equally had he ordered some kind of draconian (and unconstitutional) federal mandates and quarantines. He showed decent instincts with respect to the pandemic, preferring to leave matters largely up to states. This was good policy and good politics; top-down approaches to public health generally produce worse outcomes. And a less biased media would have savaged rather than lionized Trump critic Andrew Cuomo for his horrific bungling of nursing homes. But Trump has not articulated a strong alternative approach to dealing with covid, instead allowing Fauci to ramble publicly about far-off vaccines.
Similarly, average voters do not blame him for the George Floyd murder, nor do they blame him for the Antifa and Black Lives Matter riots. Police malfeasance is a local matter, and the optics of progressive blue cities burning plays to Trump’s advantage to an extent.But this advantage vanishes if the country still feels deeply unsettled come November. We are nearly three months removed from the George Floyd killing, and still the unrest in Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and even smaller cities like Richmond continue. Outrage benefits Trump, but fatigue does not.
Similarly, blue state covid lockdowns and mask mandates advantage Trump if in fact deaths and hospitalizations from the virus plummet before election day. If covid ebbs, his exhortations to reopen businesses, go back to school, and play college football as usual will look bold in hindsight—somewhat shielding him from voter wrath over the economic depression precipitated if not caused by the virus response. But the Chinese water torture style of media reporting on covid is designed to make the virus seem worse than it is.
These steep conditions—that covid is under control, that he is seen as the law-and-order candidate, and that anger over the economy focuses on lockdown governors rather than him—matter more to the president’s reelection chances than anything the Democratic ticket says or does. Yet he appears poised to adopt the Biden strategy of running out the clock, imagining himself the front-runner.