With less than 100 days to go until Election Day, President Donald Trump is campaigning like he did the first time, as a challenger running against the sitting president, who this time happens to be himself.
In speeches, ads and tweets, he attacks crime and urban unrest that presumably would explode in “Joe Biden’s America” – but uses video clips from President Trump’s America.
He boasts of having completed “more than 200 miles of powerful border wall” with Mexico, when all but three miles of the almost 216 miles built since Trump took office only replaced old fencing.
And four years after promising grandly to “repeal Obamacare,” the Affordable Care Act, and replace it with “something better,” Republicans in Congress remain as divided as ever about any possible replacement – especially when Trump usually seems to have forgotten about it.
The main reasons for his woes appear increasingly to be two crises that, unlike most of his crises, Trump did not generate himself. One is the coronavirus pandemic. The other is the national racial “reckoning” ignited by the choking death of George Floyd beneath a Minneapolis police officer’s knee.
After a mid-March surge in the polls as the American public rallied in our national fight against the virus, unity melted away amid a flurry of mixed messages from the president that showed the administration’s response to be anything but firm.
Result: We, the most powerful nation in the world, have one of the world’s worst infection rates.
Meanwhile, the president’s approval ratings have been sinking since March in a manner that reminds me of a famous line from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” when one character asks another named Mike how he went bankrupt:
“Two ways,” says Mike. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
Since late March, Trump’s approval rating has dropped from 46% to 40% in a FiveThirtyEight poll. Worse, approval of his handling of the virus fell during the same period from 45% to 34%, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll, while Biden’s approval on the issue grew from 43% to 54%.
The virus also has depleted the big bag of tricks that helped to put Trump over the top in 2016.
He’s canceled rallies and the big Jacksonville, Fla., component of the Republican National Convention mainly because the coronavirus, which he used to say would “just disappear,” has spread, killing more than 140,000 Americans
Even his favorite social network, Twitter, has turned against him, in his view, by footnoting or blocking tweets it judges to be out of bounds.
Instead, he has turned to the very conventional tricks of culture-war politics: respond to one national emotionally charged crisis by pumping up another one.
Trump’s administration set the tone by sending law-enforcement help to mayors who did not request it. Most dramatically, paramilitary units from Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection landed unannounced in Portland, Ore., in a federal crackdown on protests against police violence.
Instead of de-escalating violence and tempers, local officials say the arrival of federal troops actually increased the numbers of protesters. Playing commander-in-cities gave Trump the opportunity to deploy another old trick from four years ago: rebranding his opponents.
He morphed “Sleepy Joe” Biden into an opponent who, Trump says, wants to abolish the police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Second Amendment and the suburbs. Biden denies the accusations.
Yes, the ever-important suburbs, which amount to about half of the presidential electorate and voted mostly for Trump in 2016, have moved heavily to Biden’s corner this year.
Reversing that trend may be asking a lot of the Trump campaign, with an electorate that already seems quite exhausted by the president’s daily and unpredictable displays across all news and social media.
Even without doing much campaigning other than by video chat, Biden has scored a lead in the polls, simply by not being Trump.
By this point in the campaign cycle, Trump told his rally crowds four years ago, “You’ll be seeing so much winning that you’ll get tired of winning.” Now an electorate “tired of winning” his way is looking away.