Can Trump run against himself?
Any incumbent running for re-election in the midst of the worst pandemic in a hundred years, the sharpest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and the most widespread civil unrest in half a century would be facing powerful headwinds. But when that incumbent seems temperamentally incapable of doing anything except making all of it worse, those headwinds become a hurricane-force gale.
Hence the avalanche of recent polls showing presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden beating President Donald Trump nationally by double-digit margins and leading by a healthy spread in every crucial swing state. A little more than four months out from Election Day, Trump looks like he's running headlong into an electoral buzz saw.
Of course, a lot can change between now and November. The protests and vandalism of public monuments could certainly fade. Biden could stumble and lose some momentum. But the coronavirus is surging in multiple states, with infection rates putting the U.S. on track to become the worldwide epicenter of the pandemic for a long time to come, inspiring pity, schadenfreude, and panic around the globe, and ensuring that the economy will remain in the doldrums as far as the eye can see. That's likely to keep Trump's bid for re-election a long-shot.
Unless he changes tacks to do something bold — like run a wildly unorthodox two-front campaign. Instead of just targeting Biden, he could actively run against his own first term. I'm not saying Trump would be capable of pulling off such an audacious jujitsu move, or that he'd be successful if he did. Just that at this point Trump's best bet may well be to throw himself under his own bus.
It would require Trump to restrain his con man instinct to brag hyperbolically and groundlessly about his own full-spectrum wonderfulness, but taking explicit aim at his administration's atrocious record would be the authentic populist move. Populists gain their electoral power by targeting a corrupt and seemingly omnipotent establishment in the name of a disempowered and morally superior "people." That's how Trump first managed to accomplish his hostile takeover of the Republican Party and then his triumph over Hillary Clinton, a former first lady, senator, and secretary of state widely perceived to be knee-deep in Washington's culture of elite self-dealing.
The trouble for populists, very much including Trump himself, is that once they win an election, they become the establishment they once railed against. That's bad in two respects — first, because populists are often much worse at governing than they are at leading a mob of angry voters on a campaign to topple the powers that be; second, because it deprives the populist politician of his rationale and risks making him (they are almost always men) a target for rival populists taking aim at the new corrupt establishment.
This dynamic probably accounts for at least some of Trump's struggles with his bid for re-election. The political playbook for an incumbent is to take credit for accomplishments and promise more of them. That's especially hard for Trump at the moment, with so much going badly. But it would always be awkward for a man who got himself elected by launching a barrage of flaming projectiles at the castle walls. It's hard to pose as an insurgent when you're the king.
But it's not impossible.
Trump has already laid the foundation for running against his own first term — in the tweets he regularly fires off against members of his administration who have resigned or been fired and then turned on him. (Former National Security Adviser John Bolton is just the latest in a long line of examples.) These missives invariably denounce the former staffer in unmodulated terms, as unambiguously awful, and treat the resignation or firing as evidence of Trump's own toughness and high standards. What he never notes is that he invariably hired the incompetent traitor in the first place.
But let's imagine he did that, conceding that he made a mistake in hiring (or keeping on) James Comey, Jeff Sessions, James Mattis, John Kelly, John Bolton, and the rest of the not-at-all-dearly departed. Naturally he wouldn't accept the blame himself — and he wouldn't be entirely unjustified in this refusal. Trump was a businessman, not a politician. He knew little about policy and even less about the Very Important People in Washington who are supposed to help presidents govern. From the start, he's been hugely reliant on advisers and leading members of his own party — the very people his 2016 campaign was aimed at discrediting and dislodging from power.
Just as Trump could pin the blame for bad hiring decisions on these GOP dead-enders, he could conceivably go much further in blaming the manifest failures of his own first term on these same people — on Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Jeff Flake, Mitt Romney, Justin Amash, Reince Priebus, H.R. McMaster, Mick Mulvaney, Mike Pence, and the other card-carrying members of the Republican establishment who've controlled Congress and run the White House for the past three and a half years. These are the very people who've vacillated between criticizing Trump and doing his bidding with maximal obsequiousness.
That's who Trump could opt to run against — owning his administration's missteps but blaming them entirely on the wrecking crew that greeted him when he arrived at the White House. No one was ready for the Trump revolution, most of them secretly (or not-so-secretly) opposed it, and so they set up to sabotage the new president and hem him in, forcing the administration to conform to the same-old Republican agenda and policies that inspired his run for the presidency in the first place. They never let Trump be Trump. But he's learned his lesson and is ready to do it right in his second term, if only the American people will give him the chance.
That's it. That's the pitch. That's how Trump just might have a shot at turning things around — by turning on Trump 1.0.
It would be nonsense, of course. Trump would remain the same malicious and mendacious know-nothing that he's always been. He'd be no more capable of governing in a second term than he's demonstrated himself to be through his shambolic first.
But at least a campaign strategy that took aim at his own first term would permit Trump to continue to play the populist — however much doing so would leave him entangled in the performative contradictions so deeply embedded in that invariably demagogic style of politics.