Donald Trump’s tailspinning presidency is in turmoil — even by his own standards

Trump has endured one of the most disastrous political streaks of any modern commander-in-chief and appears to lack a coherent plan for righting his leaking ship, let alone for triumphing over the multiple crises rocking an increasingly unhappy nation.

He’s in denial yet again over a pandemic he initially ignored that has killed nearly 120,000 Americans, is getting worse in many states and is now threatening the economic rebound he’s banking on. Top medical experts — inside his own administration — and science disprove his false claims the virus is “dying out.” Trump’s history of prejudice and racist rhetoric has left him out of step with a generational racial awakening.
A Supreme Court dominated by his new conservative majority just rebuked him twice on cases on LGBTQ rights and immigration — issues at the core of his political project. Facebook just took down a Trump campaign ad because of Nazi imagery. He’s lagging well behind Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden — who is barely campaigning — in national and battleground state polls, and he’s just suffered the most damaging exposé by a former White House official in years, after John Bolton declared him unfit to govern. Trump’s show of being tough on China — a centerpiece of his campaign — is comprehensively debunked by the former national security adviser’s descriptions of his pleading with President Xi Jinping to help him win reelection.
There’s an increasing rift between the President and the military after he dragged them into his notorious church photo-op. Washington is filled with whispers of Republican lawmakers who fear being dragged down by a plummeting presidency. With coronavirus spiking in Oklahoma, Trump, showing huge irresponsibility, plans to hold one of the first mass participation indoor events in the world for months on Saturday as he resumes his campaign rallies — in a horror show for epidemiologists and local health officials who warn he could get people killed.

Less than five months before Election Day, with the nation battling concurrent crises, every conventional political indicator is flashing red for Trump. But every conventional political indicator has always been flashing red for Trump — and he’s never been defeated.

Why analysts won’t write Trump off

If Trump loses in November, these last few weeks may come to be remembered as the moment that the Trump train finally careened off the rails for good. Yet among Democrats and those who don’t support the President, the fear that he will a second term anyway is palpable. The man who said he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue, shoot someone and get away with it, has created a supernatural political aura exactly five years after he descended his golden escalator in Trump Tower and turned American politics on its head.

Part of the uncertainty about Trump’s prospects stems from the extraordinary nature of the times. The pandemic and the consequent economic disaster is unlikely to lead to predictable or necessarily logical consequences. Taking the mood of the country is even more complicated than normal since most Americans have been shut at home for weeks. Who knows who is even going to feel sufficiently safe to vote in November if it comes down to a choice between health and exercising a democratic right? Trump’s campaign, with its aggressive attempt to block postal voting, will certainly not make it easier. And it’s just launched a new attempt to shake-up another campaign ritual to his advantage, lobbying for more than the traditional three general election debates this fall.

The hidden tectonics of the racial awakening after the death of George Floyd may well change the conventional politics of race. But the mostly White, conservative half of the country most susceptible to Trump’s tirades against taking a knee in the NFL, calls for respect for the flag and “law and order,” and coded warnings that the US should preserve its heritage, “not tear it down,” hasn’t necessarily spoken yet.

Trump is a backlash politician; his initial election was a reaction to the cultural, racial and political change many Americans perceived in the Obama presidency. Recent Supreme Court defeats could give the evangelical section of his base motivation for one last, decisive battle to create a generational conservative majority in a Trump second term. If there is one president who can harness a culture war with demagoguery to save his own political skin, it would be the incumbent.

Similarly, Trump’s refusal to model wearing a mask in a pandemic, his massive missteps on race and the demonstrable incompetence of his half-hearted effort to combat the worst public health crisis in a century are often not perceived by his supporters to be the disasters that his critics in Washington and in the media — who are operating from fact-based analysis — perceive them to be. Indeed, Trump’s most wild behavior often served as validation for voters who sent him to Washington to destroy the status quo.

Trump, in his aggressive attacks on Biden as not physically and mentally fit for the political big time, also clearly feels he has an opening against a candidate with no record of success in presidential races — save for his shocking come-from-behind victory in the Democratic nominating contest. A fearsome conservative media machine is meanwhile ensuring that the facts of the pandemic and the mostly peaceful demonstrations following Floyd’s death never reach Trump voters.

The failure of many polling operations and media to correctly predict Trump’s rise four years ago is giving political analysts reason to caveat the President’s currently parlous position. But above all, the incorrigible resilience of the break-all-the-rules character who has dominated American life for five years may be the most important reason to view November’s election as still competitive, along with the unshakable bond Trump has with supporters, who, if they turn out in droves, could give him a platform to reach for a second term. Indeed, as CNN’s Maeve Reston reported this week, many Republican strategists say it’s too soon to know how today’s climate will shape November but are optimistic that enthusiasm for Trump among his voters, as well as calls to “defund the police” on the left, could boost Trump.

And there is also no doubt — as his impeached conduct in Ukraine showed — the President will use every governmental power at his disposal — and many that are not — to tilt the election in his favor.

Why Trump has to hold his rally amid a pandemic

Those rooting for a second Trump term might wish to avoid the transcript of his interview with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday night. The session was a mix of alternative facts, denial and illogical statements about the virus and appeared to confirm Bolton’s accusations that the President was unfit for the office in which he serves. No noticeable electoral strategy was obvious apart from wildly optimistic predictions that the economy, pulverized by the pandemic, would soon be better than ever.

From the beginning, Trump denied the approach of the virus because it was politically inconvenient. Now he’s doing exactly the same thing, as spiking cases in many states that are setting record levels of new infections again expose his negligence, a failure to properly manage the reopening of the economy and to prepare a country for a reduced lifestyle until vaccines or treatments can be found.

“It’s fading away. It’s going to fade away,” Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox News on Wednesday, giving a false impression since 10 states recorded record numbers of new cases this week. In Florida, one of the states that most enthusiastically embraced Trump’s push to reopen, experts are warning of a potentially “catastrophic” spike in the virus. Pandemic graphs in most countries show a steep rise then a more gradual trek down the mountain. The US graph shows a climb up the mountain, then a kind of alpine ridge as cases decreased a bit, then plateaued, then started to rise again.

But Trump, who has, according to CNN reporting, started to cast doubt on the authenticity of coronavirus data, is trying to sell a case that the spikes in infections are due to more testing — an illogical argument since more testing should allow health authorities to isolate and trace cases and eventually stamp out new cases.

“I personally think testing is overrated, even though I created the greatest testing machine in history,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal. Every credible public health expert says that testing, tracing and isolating are the keys to beating a pandemic. Such experts also say that wearing masks — a step Trump refuses to endorse or take in public — is another vital step to controlling transmission of the disease. California, for instance, issued a statewide order on Thursday requiring face-coverings.

“The mask is a double-edged sword and I see it. People come in, they’re talking through the mask for hours. They probably don’t clean them after, you know, they get a little cocky, right?” Trump told the Journal, in comments typical of his hunch-based approach to the virus that junks science.

Given the dispiriting news about the coronavirus, which suggests the United States is many months away from victory, the decision to go ahead with the Oklahoma rally seems like madness.

But the need for the President to have a morale-boosting, made-for-television show of support suggesting his political base is ready for battle in November — even amid such extreme circumstances — may be the starkest signal yet that Trump’s camp is concerned about his prospects for a second term and thinks he needs a relaunch.

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