June 29, 2020

The Week It Went South for Trump

He hasn’t been equal to the crises. He never makes anything better. And everyone kind of knows.

Something shifted this month. Donald Trump’s hold on history loosened, and may be breaking. In some new way his limitations are being seen and acknowledged, and at a moment when people are worried about the continuance of their country and their own ability to continue within it. He hasn’t been equal to the multiple crises. Good news or bad, he rarely makes any situation better. And everyone kind of knows.

On Wednesday a Siena College/New York Times poll found Joe Biden ahead 50% to 36%. It’s a poll four months out, but it’s a respectable one and in line with others. (A week before, a Fox News poll had Mr. Biden leading 50% to 38%. The president denounced it as a fantasy.) This week’s poll had Mr. Biden leading among women by 22 points — a bigger lead than Hillary Clinton enjoyed in 2016. He has moderates by 33 points, independents by 21. On Thursday a separate Times/Siena poll had Mr. Trump losing support in the battleground states that put him over the top in 2016. His “once-commanding advantage among white voters has nearly vanished,” the Times wrote.

The latest White House memoir paints the president as ignorant, selfish and unworthy of high office. Two GOP House primary candidates the president supported lost their primaries resoundingly. Internet betting sites that long saw Mr. Trump as the front-runner now favor Mr. Biden. The president’s vaunted Tulsa, Okla., rally was a dud with low turnout. Senior officials continue to depart the administration — another economic adviser this week, the director of legislative affairs and the head of the domestic policy council before him. Why are they fleeing the ship in a crisis, in an election year?

Judgments on the president’s pandemic leadership have settled in. It was inadequate and did harm. He experienced Covid-19 not as a once-in-a-lifetime medical threat but merely a threat to his re-election argument, a gangbusters economy. He denied the scope and scale of the crisis, sent economic adviser Larry Kudlow out to say we have it “contained” and don’t forget to buy the dip. Mr. Trump essentially admitted he didn’t want more testing because it would result in more positives.

And the virus rages on, having hit blue states first and now tearing through red states in the South and West — Arizona, Florida, the Carolinas, Texas.

The protests and riots of June were poorly, embarrassingly handled. They weren’t the worst Washington had ever seen, they were no 1968, but still he wound up in the White House bunker. Then out of the bunker for an epically pointless and manipulative photo-op in front of a boarded-up church whose basement had been burned. Through it all the angry, blustering tweets issued from the White House like panicked bats fleeing flames in the smokestack.

It was all weak, unserious and avoidant of the big issues. He wasn’t equal to that moment either.

His long-term political malpractice has been his failure — with a rising economy, no unemployment and no hot wars — to build his support beyond roughly 40% of the country. He failed because he obsesses on his base and thinks it has to be fed and greased with the entertainments that alienate everyone else. But his base, which always understood he was a showman, wanted steadiness and seriousness in these crises, because they have a sense of the implications of things.

He doesn’t understand his own base. I’ve never seen that in national politics.

Some of them, maybe half, are amused by his nonsense decisions and statements — let’s ban all Muslims; let’s end this deadbeat alliance; we have the biggest, best tests. But they are half of 40%, and they would stick with him no matter what. He doesn’t have to entertain them! He had to impress and create a bond with others.

The other half of his base is mortified by his antics and shallowness. I hear from them often. They used to say yes, he’s rough and uncouth and unpolished, but only a rough man can defeat the swamp. Now they say I hate him and what he represents but I’ll vote for him because of the courts, etc. How a lot of Trump supporters feel about the president has changed. The real picture at the Tulsa rally was not the empty seats so much as the empty faces — the bored looks, the yawning and phone checking, as if everyone was re-enacting something, hearing some old song and trying to remember how it felt a few years ago, when you heard it the first time.

In the end, if the president loses, he’ll turn on them too. They weren’t there for him, they didn’t work hard enough, they’re no good at politics. “After all I did.”

That will be something, when that happens.

Nobody knows what’s coming. On New Year’s Eve we couldn’t imagine the pandemic, economic contraction and protests. We don’t know what will happen in the next four months, either. I believe in the phenomenon of silent Trump voters, people who don’t tell anyone, including pollsters, that they’re for him because they don’t want to be hassled. But eight, 10 or 14 points worth? No.

It’s generally thought that if the summer’s protests and demonstrations become riots again, if they’re marked by more violence and statues crashing to the ground, then Mr. Trump will benefit. This may be true. There will be powerful pushback if things are grim. But I’m not sure he will benefit. A sense that things have gone out of control under your watch does not help incumbents. A sense that he cannot calibrate his actions but will do any crazy thing to bolster his position will not help him. He is a strange man in a strange time, the old rules don’t necessarily apply.

It’s possible, but not likely, that a general calming will occur as progressive activists make progress in party primaries and corporate boardrooms, and as their ideological assumptions ascend in public life. They’ve already won and are winning a lot.

And it’s always possible Joe Biden will awaken to the moment we’re in, see that a leader isn’t someone who sits back in a sunny, well-appointed suburban room and watches, passively, as dramatic events unfold. He could emerge as a real leader with a series of statements putting forth guiding principles to weather our crises. We have problems with race, problems with the police. What rearrangements should be made? How do we make them nonviolently, democratically? What is the meaning of history? What is a statue? What is socialism? What is the path?

He is bowing to the ancient political wisdom that you should never interrupt a man while he’s destroying himself. And he’s afraid of being on the wrong side of rising progressive forces. But thoughtfulness and seriousness would put him squarely with wavering Trump supporters and the honestly undecided, and reassure them that a vote for him is not also a vote for unchecked extremism and mayhem.

Silence is short-term shrewd. Rising to the occasion, taking a chance, making a gamble when everything is going your way but the country needs more — that is long-term wise. And wise always beats shrewd in the end.

We had wondered if Mr. Trump can lead in a crisis. He cannot. Can Mr. Biden?

Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.

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