Trump is shockingly bad at this
What if Donald Trump is really bad at politics?
I know, I know — I'm probably just getting cocky and foolishly allowing my judgment to be clouded by some outlier polls and my intense desire to see the president suffer a humiliating loss next month. After all, isn't Trump the political savant who launched a successful hostile takeover of the Republican Party and then managed to defy the conventional wisdom by beating Hillary Clinton? Those events from four years ago have left Democrats struggling with political PTSD, doubting themselves and fearing surprise defeats around every corner, and Republicans equally inclined to believe in their own invincibility.
But what if the truth is that Trump is only good at gauging what a certain angry, grievance-driven segment of Republican voters want to hear? And especially good at running a down-market populist general election campaign against a widely disliked former first lady who had never won a competitive election, who gave off an air of entitlement, and who was seeking the presidency while under investigation by the FBI?
And even then, he only managed to win 46 percent of the national popular vote.
We've seen the charts of Trump's approval ratings for so long that we've lost the capacity to be shocked by them. It took a grand total of 15 days — from Jan. 20 until Feb. 3, 2017 — for the number of people disapproving of the president's performance to outnumber those who approved. Since then, there hasn't been a single day when that dynamic has reversed. Since March 16, 2017, Trump's disapproval rating has (barely) sunk below 50 percent for just two weeks, in late March and early April of 2020, when the president briefly seemed to be responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with the seriousness it demanded. That response faded quickly, and so did his modest uptick in the polls. Before long he was back 10 or more points under water, which is where he is now, with less than a month to go until Election Day.
But let's leave all that aside to ponder with a modicum of perspective the colossal train wreck of the past week.
First came the most horrifying general election debate in history — one in which Joe Biden easily disproved the Trump campaign's core messages, that the Democratic nominee is a doddering old man in the depths of dementia and that he's bound to govern from the far left, while the president himself came off as radioactively dislikable.
Then we got Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis along with a growing list of prominent Republican office-holders, administration staffers, and members of the White House press corps who appeared to contract the virus while attending events where participants were actively discouraged from wearing masks. To this day, it's not entirely clear when Trump first received a positive test result, and whether he traveled (maskless) to a campaign rally in Minnesota last Wednesday and to a fundraiser in New Jersey the next day when he knew he was sick.
Then came the travesty of the president's three-day trip to Walter Reed Medical Center — where Trump's doctors told the public one thing about his condition while the White House chief of staff said another, where Trump posed for dishonest photographs showing him hard at work, and where he put members of the Secret Service in harm's way so he could go on a brief campaign swing in an SUV.
This was followed on Monday by a tweet in which Trump announced he would soon be discharged from the hospital and commanded his countrymen, "Don't be afraid of Covid." This about an illness that has so far killed more than 215,000 Americans, and from a man who regularly counsels fear of Biden, liberals, Democrats, socialism, antifa, cities, Muslims, and migrant caravans. That he also bragged about how, as president, he has received "some really great drugs" that have left him feeling "better than I did 20 years ago" only underscored how insulated he is from nearly everyone else's experience of the virus.
Within a few hours, Trump would drop a short video of himself repeatedly insisting that Americans shouldn't let the virus "dominate" them, arrive back at the White House by helicopter, and stage a dramatic removal of his face mask on the Truman Balcony (punctuated by him visibly gasping for breath), before turning to enter the building, where a staff of dozens would be tasked with caring for the most likely still highly contagious commander in chief.
It was a singularly appalling performance — though one fully in keeping with Trump's presidency, which from the beginning has been a charade, with a man who's pretending to be more successful than he really is playing the part of a populist while enacting policies to enrich the wealthiest Americans and leaving the rest of the country to fend for themselves. As long as the economic growth that began under Barack Obama continued through the first three years of the Trump administration, this reality was easy to obscure. But now, with the economy in the doldrums, more than 200,000 dead, and the president himself ailing, Trump's efforts to pretend everything is perfectly fine have become as grating and galling as they are disturbing.
When the administration of George W. Bush was floundering in Iraq, its defenders took to accusing the media of focusing exclusively on bad news. This led some critics to respond that the actual problem was that reality has a liberal bias. That went too far into easy self-congratulation, but it wasn't wholly wrong. The Bush administration was the one attempting to spin the press by hyping meager signs of progress against a rapidly expanding insurgency, while journalists were merely reporting confounding facts and events that the administration preferred the public not to hear.
Those were the good old days of Republican transparency and competence.
There is one thing that the American people know about Joe Biden. He, like them, is capable of perceiving and responding to the hard, wrenching reality of life in 2020. About Donald Trump, they know no such thing. And with ample and ever-increasing justification.
No wonder Trump looks to be headed toward a massive electoral repudiation.
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