This time is different for Trump

The president has, at long last, screwed everything up so badly that he can't recover in time for the election

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

To say that President Trump's re-election is in jeopardy would be an understatement.

His recent national and battleground state polling is calamitous. Multiple national polls in recent days show him down by double digits to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Real Clear Politics has Biden's average polling lead at 8.1 points. For GOP strategists hoping the rickety Electoral College will rescue the president, the news is equally grim. The only June survey of Florida, by well-regarded pollster TIPP, has Biden up 11 points with likely voters. The lone poll of Wisconsin that includes June data has Biden up by 9 points there. This month's polls of Michigan have Biden up by an eye-popping average of 14 points. If the election were held today, it's not hard to imagine Biden winning by 10 points, securing as many as 407 electoral votes and handing as many as eight more seats and a majority to Democrats in the Senate.

So is this it? Has President Trump's luck finally run out, or will he, as so many liberals fear, manage to reanimate his campaign the same way he has resuscitated his fortunes over the past four years?

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Throughout the Trump presidency, critics have watched him stumble heedlessly into one self-made disaster after another, only to see his popularity recover to a level just high enough to imagine him eking out another narrow victory in 2020. Despite his enduring unpopularity and his inability to even sniff 50 percent in a rolling average since the day he took office, he has never lost his grip on his base. And so it would be easy to dismiss this most recent polling collapse as yet another temporary, news-cycle driven fluctuation, likely to be no more enduring than the decline in his numbers after the Ukraine scandal broke in September 2019.

Surely the polls will tighten up by election day, right? Once the media has moved on from his spectacularly destructive behavior during the George Floyd protests, why wouldn't he drift right back up? With the worst of the COVID-19 crisis in the rearview mirror, could an improving economy boost Trump's numbers just in time for the election? Nothing is impossible in American politics, but the answer to these questions is almost certainly no, no and no.

There are actually a number of reasons to think this time is different. The president may have, at long last, screwed everything up so badly that he has lost the plot, alienated critical voting demographics, and sealed his own doom.

For starters, the 4-point nosedive in his average public approval rating that began in mid-May is already the third-worst of his presidency, exceeded only by a pair of descents early on in his inglorious reign, according to Real Clear Politics. The past month therefore ranks as the most dramatic erosion of his standing in more than three years. Past slides were also marked by rebounds that lasted days or even months, and this time it's just been straight down for a solid four weeks.

President Trump plainly lacks a way out of the twin crises he is mismanaging. Congressional Republicans rescued him for the first time in December 2017, when they finally passed the first significant piece of legislation of his term, the tax cuts. While it never polled particularly well with the broader public, there's no question that actually achieving something tangible solidified Trump's standing with his base. Then his hand-picked Attorney General, William Barr, succeeded in burying the Mueller Report, permanently warping public perception of its findings and reorienting the Department of Justice to investigating the investigators. Republicans in Congress fished him out of the water one last time during the impeachment proceedings, first by coalescing around an absurd counter-narrative about the scandal which was parroted relentlessly in the conservative media universe, and then by acquitting him in the Senate after a perfunctory "trial."

His allies cannot save the president this time. They can't go back in time and make him take the looming coronavirus disaster seriously in February and March. They can't force him to wear a mask, or to stop floating inane theories about miracle drugs and house-made remedies, or to stop celebrating ephemeral stock market increases and slightly-less-apocalyptic-than-expected jobs reports like he found the cure for cancer. They can't compel him to take command of a national test-and-trace system that experts still believe is the only viable way to get the pandemic under control in this country. They can't make him express an empathy for the 117,000-plus dead Americans that he plainly does not feel.

They can't talk him out of defending the honor of the Confederacy, or convince him to stop tweeting LAW AND ORDER every 12 hours. They can't prevail on him to avoid musing about using the military to pacify American cities that don't want or need an invasion. They can't prevent him from spitballing about whether elderly protestors thrown to the ground and critically injured by out-of-control cops are actually deep-cover Antifa agents. They can't get him to hire a press secretary who isn't dumber than Joey from Friends or to break the cycle of driving out top advisor after top advisor from the administration only to see them turn around and confirm what anyone with two eyes can see: that Trump is unteachable, unreachable, dangerous, and manifestly unfit for the office he holds. They can't prevent him from holding indoor rallies in COVID hotspots filled with thousands of unmasked followers — a spectacle guaranteed to horrify and alienate anyone who isn't a dead-ender.

Most importantly, President Trump's enablers can't wish the coronavirus nightmare away, or make it disappear in a cloud of conspiratorial OANN vapors. The virus is going to do what it is going to do, and it seems likely that by election day at least 200,000 Americans will be dead from a virus that many peer countries were able to contain or at least prevent from spiraling out of control like this.

Unlike Russiagate or the firing of former FBI Director Jim Comey or Trump's execrable comments about how the Charlottesville Nazis included some "very fine people" or his reckless decision to shut down the government for weeks in a fit of petulant rage over losing the House to the Democrats or the in-plain-sight extortion and election-rigging scheme that led to his long-overdue impeachment, the coronavirus crisis and President Trump's inept, selfish, and often malevolent handling of it have upended the lives of every single American, ushering in a sudden and horrifying new reality that literally every single person in this country resents. The economy may have reached its nadir, but without a vaccine or a treatment, there is likely to be a hard ceiling on any recovery that will make it impossible for Trump to sell a resurrection narrative in October.

But with Trump it's never enough. He and his team of former high school outcasts and rich, clueless, grandstanding weirdos were uniquely ill-prepared to deal with another spasm of racial unrest. The whitest administration in decades, staffed by people errantly convinced of their own strategic genius, was of course completely, diametrically wrong about how the public would react to the nationwide wave of protests that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. They can't deal with the simple fact that Black Lives Matter is far more popular than Trump, that the rapidly diversifying electorate is a terrible match for Trumpism's white grievance politics, and that the only way to mollify the maddened crowds would be to break decisively with the authoritarian impulses of police departments across the country.

All of this is why it is as likely as not that the president's polling apocalypse is not a fleeting low in a race destined to get closer, but rather an endpoint that the Trump presidency was fated to reach all along. National polling averages have not been off by more than 4 points this close to an election this century. Races don't always get closer than they are right now. On this date in 2012, Barack Obama led Mitt Romney by 0.7 points. He won by 3.9. In 2008, Barack Obama led John McCain by 4 points on June 17. He won by 7.3. And in 2004, George W. Bush led John Kerry by 1.8 points. He won by 2.4. The only race with the level of change and the right directionality needed to deliver the election to Trump was — you guessed it! — in 2016. And it seems like the Trump team learned all the wrong lessons from their victory.

Even if you think the president is going to magically gain all 4 of those points in the next four months amidst double-digit unemployment, mass death, and a newly awakened majority for racial justice, he would still lose. And it's hard to see him even doing that well. The Black Lives Matter protests could fade in importance by November, but there is not going to be any end to the COVID story. There will be little room for anything else. It will dominate the news. It will be the primary subject of the debates. It will be like if the Iraq War had unraveled in the summer of 2004 rather than the summer of 2005. They can try to drum up some nonsense scandal about Biden, but no one cared about Hunter Biden and Burisma last year, and they sure as hell aren't going to be bothered by it now.

There is really only one thing that could save Trump's bacon cheeseburger at this point, and that's a vaccine. Not a Secret Plan To Distribute a Vaccine (an extremely high likelihood pre-election gambit) but actual needles going into actual arms by the end of October. And you'd be hard pressed to find any expert who thinks that's going to happen on that timeline, even if they cut two phases out of the normal vaccine development process.

Americans like to see villains get their comeuppance. That's why the finale of The Sopranos remains widely reviled, and the last episode of Breaking Bad satisfied fans. President Trump, the anti-hero to end all anti-heroes, doesn't get to write this script. The writers' room is America.

We want closure, and we're almost certainly going to get it.

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David Faris

David Faris is an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University and the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. He is a frequent contributor to Informed Comment, and his work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Indy Week.