Late on Thursday, the day former Vice President Joe Biden announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic nomination, President Trump appeared on Fox News to discuss the election — the one held two and a half years ago in 2016.
Some of us expected the president's interview with Sean Hannity to be a short chat about "Sleepy Joe" and the rest of the 20-person Democratic field. Instead, Trump ranted about Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, which he called "an attempted coup," "an attempted overthrow of the United States government," and "the biggest scandal in political history in this country." Depending on how you define "government," at least one of these could be considered an accurate characterization of the pointless, bad-faith exploration of non-existent collusion between Trump's campaign and the Russian government. It was certainly an attempt to cripple Trump's administration, to make it impossible for him to execute the duties of his office. It is now being used as a pretext by many of his opponents — including five Democrats running for president next year — for arguing that he should be impeached.
In addition to airing his grievances with Mueller, Trump also previewed what he claims is his administration's counter-investigation of the process that led to the creation of the special counsel in the first place: the leak of information about Trump's former campaign chair Paul Manafort's lobbying by Ukrainian authorities who sought to elect Hillary Clinton instead ("collusion"), the FISA-approved wiretap of Trump Tower, the activities of various former FBI officials ("absolute dirty cops"). He praised Attorney General William Barr and thanked various GOP congressional hacks for their efforts on his behalf.
For Hannity's audience on Fox — who apparently had no interest in watching the first round of the NFL draft — this was a treat. But listening to the president, I found myself thinking for the first time in months that Democrats have a good shot at winning the next election.
Trump's fortunes in his re-election campaign will not depend upon the good will of the conservative base. He has secured their allegiance more firmly than any president since Ronald Reagan. The average ex-Tea Party Patriot in rural Alabama is not going to decide at some point between now and next November that, on second thought, he really likes Barack Obama's right-hand man and only wishes that Biden would get behind the Green New Deal and single-payer health care and maybe the so-called BDS movement. The only voters who should really matter to the president are the ones who were actually responsible for electing him last time: the tens of thousands of former Obama supporters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania who broke with what must, in some cases, have been decades of partisan allegiance in order to back Trump.
These Obama-Trump voters are not interested in a rehash of the last election. Their support for the president last time was pragmatic rather than ideological. If Trump spends the next year and a half complaining about how unfairly he was treated by his opponents in 2016, he could very well lose in 2020.
If Thursday's interview was any indication, Trump neither knows nor cares what he is supposed to be pitching to these voters. He said nothing about his renegotiation of NAFTA or about his efforts — largely futile — to save what remains of the automobile industry in the post-industrial Midwest. Nor did he mention his withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and Syria. Instead he rattled off some half-remembered statistics about employment and complained about how the late Sen. John McCain thwarted the attempts of congressional Republicans to repeal the increasingly popular Affordable Care Act. He also noted that "we have ships and boats."
If Trump's eventual opponent is clever, he or she will exploit his fixation on Mueller and former FBI Director James Comey and former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page and dozens of other names that ordinary Americans will have forgotten by then and his evident lack of interest in the bread-and-butter issues that actually matter to purple-state voters. The speeches and soundbites would write themselves: "The president wants to talk about who did or said this or that four years ago. I want to talk about what he spent four years not doing: fighting for the American middle class.
Responding to this kind of criticism with complaints about how it's all Democrats' fault will not help Trump in the next election any more than his bizarre praise for "jets the likes of which no country has." It looks increasingly as if his only hope in 2020 is getting to run against an incompetent, inexperienced opponent. No wonder he says he's "rooting" for Pete Buttigieg.