Donald Trump is going to lose the 2020 election.
There, I said it. Perhaps I should add “if he doesn’t change course, and, like, yesterday.” I once had an internship as an artist for a Chicago ad agency. I like to doodle cartoons to this day. And I was thinking yesterday about what I would draw if I was tasked with coming up with a political cartoon that captures the essence of the unraveling Trump presidency at this point in time.
The idea that came to me, and I am sure a lot of people, was this: Donald Trump is dressed as the Roman emperor Nero. Toga, orange hair, the whole get-up. Behind him buildings burn as masked marauders chase impotent police down the streets of a once great American city (take your pick). And rather than a fiddle, Trump is holding his phone, furiously tweeting away. Around him are the words of his tweets. #LawAndOrder! #GodBlessPolice! #SaveOurHistory! And so on.
As I said, I’m sure it’s been done already. But the fact that the Trump=Nero comparison has even been made should tell us all we need to know about the prospects for the President’s re-election.
How exactly did Donald Trump get elected in 2016?
Metaphor switch…activated. Let’s bring the analogy out of ancient Rome and into our own history. The American people who voted for him in 2016 hired Trump to do a job. To ride into D.C. like Wyatt Earp or Shane and clean up this town. “Drain the swamp” as went the mantra of overflow crowds back in the day. But this phrase was not just limited to rooting out D.C. corruption. It was always more than that. The American people voted for this thrice-married, Manhattan real estate mogul media hound turned reality-TV star precisely because in a George Costanza moment (so many metaphors to choose from!) they decided that “Yes, we must do the opposite.”
For decades large swaths of the American populace watched with dismay as once prosperous small towns and medium sized cities supported by a thriving manufacturing base were effectively gutted by the forces of globalism. When I was a child, the common expression when we didn’t eat our dinner was “they’re starving in China”. Now it’s “China is eating our lunch.” By the time that the 2016 election rolled around, American industry had been decimated and jobs by the millions shipped overseas under the promise that globalization would be good for all of us. But that proved to be a devastating miscalculation. And both parties were to blame. It was a Republican president Nixon who first opened up relations with the communist state in 1972, despite his anti-Red bona fides.
In 1978 Democrat Jimmy Carter then established full diplomatic relations and recognition with Beijing. Again it was a Democrat president Clinton in 1997 who was instrumental in gaining China’s acceptance into the World Trade Organization. Through a succession of Bushes, Clinton, Obama, despite China’s unfair trade practices, their blatant stealing of our intellectual property, their infiltration of our universities, their currency manipulation and subverting our role as the manufacturing hub of the world through undercutting costs via sub-standard work conditions and de facto slave labor, both parties just let it happen.
And why shouldn’t they have? They were getting rich. Tech, finance, government lobbying. These economic spheres boomed. All it cost the USA was the disenfranchisement and abandonment of the middle class that was once the pillar of American power, growth, and just as important, social stability.
Then, in another twist of the screw, the lower-skilled jobs that did remain in the USA seemed to be more and more occupied by illegal immigrants who were willing to work for less than a living wage, who were in no position to demand healthcare benefits or workers comp. and who it was clear both parties, for different reasons, were all too happy to see remain in the country in defiance of our laws with impunity. The Chamber of Commerce wing of the GOP saw in them cheap labor, the Dems future voters through lenient amnesty. It got to the point where the average middle class voter wondered if the law no longer even mattered.
Meanwhile, many of their children were coming home from overseas wars of dubious value—courtesy of a Republican president—in far-away places. They were all too often maimed and psychologically traumatized. Troubling questions about the status quo percolated. Why do our leaders care more about the people of Kabul than Kalamazoo? What am I getting out of this new, globalist service-economy America where nothing in my house is built by Americans anymore? Why are foreign nationals allowed to break our laws and leap-frog the proper immigration lines, and then demand my tax dollars in social services? What the hell is happening to my country?
By the time of the 2016 election cycle, the frustrations of large parts of the nation who did not live a short drive to an ocean was palpable. And the two-party system offered no relief. They had become two sides of the same insider coin. Democrats, having lost this middle class which was once the backbone of their party, had become a party of the urban poor, minority blocks and coastal elites. But the middle class, in shock over why their daddy and grand-daddy’s factory was a decaying Call Of Duty backdrop, and wondering how they were going to afford college for their kids as people all around them succumbed to opioids dumped on them from a rapacious big pharma protected by D.C. lobbyists, had no faith in the GOP to be the push-back.
Who was John McCain in 1998 but a D.C. insider with his hand deep in the Federal pie? Being shot down only gets you so far. Four years later, Mitt Romney, who has since revealed himself to be a shameless panderer to BLM, was no better. Sure, he may have looked the part of President right out of central casting, but he’d made his fortune raiding companies and firing people like eventual Trump voters to make a few hundred million.
So…China. Lost manufacturing. The explosion in the opioid crisis. Endless wars. Illegal immigration. Stagnant wages. The wealth gap growing. Towns across the heartland dying. The rule of law crumbling. The country balkanizing along ethnic lines. And the struggle to make ends meet getting ever more difficult and stressful. This was America as viewed through the eyes of millions as the 2016 election approached, and the excitement and promise of the first African-American president had long since deteriorated into cynical identity politics.
And who did they have to look forward to this time around?
More of the same. Jeb Bush for the GOP was the son and brother of presidents. Hillary Clinton in the Democrat camp was the perpetual D.C. job-getter and wife of a president. Indeed, had the elites of both parties had their way, the last names of the last five presidents would have been Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Bush/Clinton. What could better illustrate how the entrenched interests had wormed their way into the bowels of the Federal Republic than that? On one side was a pampered, entitled politician who, like his brother, owed his position of inordinate power to his family name, and on the other was arguably the most mendacious, ambitious, and utterly corrupt person to run for president certainly in my lifetime. The coastal elites, of course, were thrilled. They would work with either to keep the gravy train status quo going, middle America be damned.
Donald Trump – The Forgotten Man
And then Donald J. Trump exploded over the political landscape like an atomic bomb.
In him, the “Forgotten Man”, as Amity Shales coined the phrase, at last had his/her voice. Here was an outsider’s outsider. The man who’d never been elected to a town council suddenly was propelled to the highest office in the land. The elites were in utter shock. Catatonic. Then enraged. The cultural cold war, it seemed, had opened up into all-out combat, with General Trump leading one movement and the forces of CNN, The New York Times, Washington Post, and alphabet networks on the other, with Hollywood and big tech thrown in for reinforcements. Trump’s Inauguration Speech was dark, serious, and frank. It was, in many ways, one of the most honest speeches a president has ever delivered on his first day in office.
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer. Everyone is listening to you now. You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before. At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public. But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
And, it seemed, despite his enemies constantly attacking him from without, and those within the D.C. bureaucratic class boring from within—and his own missteps and chaos in the administration—he began to deliver on his promises. Sort of. He did cut regulations and taxes for the middle class, he did pull us out of disadvantageous treaties and accords, he did get the job market humming and 401ks swelling. On the cultural front, he appointed just shy of 200 conservative jurists to the federal bench. He resisted the temptation to attack Iran for merely taking out an unmanned drone (Bush would have let the missiles fly). He did begin to bring back manufacturing while confronting China with a mutually punishing but necessary trade war.
So what’s gone wrong for Donald Trump?
But in key areas, Donald Trump has forgotten what got him elected. First and foremost, illegal immigration. His bombastic promises to build a “big beautiful wall” have gone unfulfilled. For many Trump supporters for whom immigration was a salient issue, the break with him occurred in 2019 after he ended a 35-day partial government shut-down without receiving any funds to build an actual wall along the border. Anne Coulter, the orthodox right-wing author who was once so enamored with Trump she even wrote a book in 2016 called In Trump We Trust, was the personification of broader frustration. She tweeted out her disenchantment thusly: “The word ‘wall’ has not crossed the president’s lips, lambchop. Only BS euphemisms that mean ‘You’re Never Getting a Wall’ – e.g. ‘border security!’
When, in fact, was the last time Trump even mentioned immigration? And now the Supreme Court, the supposedly conservative bastion, has upheld a lower court’s DACA ruling. I am not arguing for or against the ruling, but for those like Coulter for whom immigration was issue, Trump has not delivered. One doubts future campaign rallies, if any happen, will feature the chant “Build The Wall!” This promise has ended not with a bang but a whimper.
At least the President is a friend of the police and a believer in law and order. Right? I want you to do a thought experiment. Imagine if you will the riots, the looting, the shootings, the chaos, the nihilistic assault on our monuments. Now, pretend that this is all taking place during the presidency of Madam Clinton. One can hear the MAGA voices saying with satisfaction that this is what you asked for when you voted against Donald Trump. That the Donald would have come down hard and end this nonsense quickly. Well? Where is he?
One can guess that “coming down hard” wouldn’t have meant the force of a thumb on an iPhone at 3:00 a.m. in a Twitter storm. The fact is the riots, burning buildings, assaults, murders, unchecked destruction and theft are happening all across the nation, in full view of a dismayed citizenry…and President Trump is doing little about it. I’m not sure what he can do, but even a national address in prime time would have been nice. Perhaps threatening Seattle to clean out CHAZ/CHOP asap or he would send in the guard to do it. Something. Again, whether or not you believe that should have been his course, his supporters must certainly have expected more. And they are disappointed.
There is an argument being made by Trump die-hards that he is letting the riots run their course to show the contrast between his vision for the country and his opponents’. Either he is criminally cynical if this is true, or he is impotent. Either way he looks bad. Perhaps he is listening too much to handlers? Is Jared Kushner whispering in his ear? Whatever the reason, Trump was elected, in large part, because his voters did not expect such scenes to be allowed to go unpunished under a Trump administration. Does the emperor have no clothes?
Finally, there is the faltering economy. Whether or not it is his fault, the COVID-19 crisis did happen. Millions have been thrown out of work, and though it is recovering, the oft-touted Dow Jones has shed roughly 4,000 points since the pandemic erupted. And his administration has been unable to come up with a cohesive plan to combat the virus. Now, as a federalist I do believe that states should be calling the shots more, so there is only so much he can do, but again the optics are bad. In fact, according to a Morning Consult tracking poll, as of June 1, only 41% of voters approve of Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. 53% disapprove.
What can Trump do to win re-election in 2020?
So what can Trump do to salvage his sinking presidency? First and foremost, he should go on national TV and address the riots much the way Nixon did in his 1971 “Silent Majority” speech. The country he leads is convulsing, and but for tweets, he has done little. A church right across the street from the White House was vandalized. He needs to explain what will happen if this continues. The American people, his supporters especially, need to know that a steady hand is at the helm and law and order will be restored. So far, he has been perplexingly silent.
Second, he must accept that this is not 2016 and he is not running against the most disliked candidate to ever run for president. Someone needs to sit him down and say: “Look, sir, stop telling yourself you won ‘by a landslide’. You only won by a total of 80,000 precarious votes in key swing states and lost the popular vote by 2.8 million. The Democrats will not make the same mistake of ignoring states like Wisconsin ever again. They may be many things, but they are not politically tone deaf. If any one is at this moment, it’s you.”
Furthermore, Donald Trump just needs to act more presidential. Although that may be impossible. Regardless, it’s now or never. Yes, his instincts got him this far, but he was a novelty in 2016. A sensation. No one ever had been so brazen as to call out Hillary to her face for her law-breaking, or to label the low-energy Jeb Bush with that famous moniker. His attacking his opponents, crude as it was, was a welcome blast of honesty…and fun to watch in a bloodsport sort of way. That was then. Can anyone really say now that his labeling Michael Bloomberg—a successful New York mayor, and a man far more respected in business—as “Mini-Mike” due to his short stature earned him any support? Or was it just petulant and childish.
The fact is, Trump’s style is exhausting. After a while you just want the man to chill out and speak plainly, coherently, and presidentially. These are serious times. They demand a serious response from the head of state. Tweeting out “THE LONE WARRIOR” as I literally just got while writing this as if he is trying to prove my point simply doesn’t fly anymore.
Will Joe Biden stop him?
In a New York Times/Siena College poll plucked at random, Biden currently leads Trump 47%-36% in Michigan, 49%-38% in Wisconsin, 50%-40% in Pennsylvania, 47%-41% in Florida, 48%-41% in Arizona, and 49%-40% in North Carolina. These are states he won by the slimmest margin in 2016. His chances of winning the Electoral College will be slim to none if even half of them break blue this time. Yes, his die-hards and sycophants can always say that Hillary was leading big at this time in the campaign in 2016. But this is not 2016. And the times are very different. People are anxious, the country is a tinderbox, and the law and order president has been found wanting.
The best chance Trump has to turn this around, besides acting like a president and not a mad tweeter holed up in the Oval Office, lies in his opponent. Anyone who has looked at Joe Biden through a non-partisan lens can tell he is losing his mental faculties. For him, the COVID-19 pandemic was a political Godsend. His handlers, who are well aware of his decaying mind, can keep him holed up in the figurative basement, with controlled, rehearsed appearances and friendly interviewers from networks invested in his success feeding him questions ahead of time so the “answers” may be read off of a teleprompter. The less Biden is seen, the better he does in the polling. But at some point Biden is going to have to pull a Punxsutawney Phil and emerge from his lair to face the lights and the cameras…and a man with more stamina and mental acuity to hold an unrehearsed two-and-a-half-hour press conference than Biden can a two-minute interview when the teleprompter goes down.
Once he has him out in the open, President Trump must then pound and pound away at Biden’s corruption and his more than cozy relationship with the Chinese—while reminding Americans that at the same time Biden was helping his ne’er-do-well drug-addled son secure a billion dollar “investment” from Beijing, Trump was warning of the dangers of being in too tight an embrace with the Machiavellian communist dictatorship that has killed 120,000 Americans so far and decimated the economy. Indeed, if any lemonade can be squeezed from the coronavirus lemon, it is that this is the exact example of what Trump had been warning us against…and those in the Democrat party called as “racist” expressions. “Why do they care more about Chinese sensibilities than protecting their own people?” he should be asking, while playing every clip he can of powerful Democrats kowtowing to Beijing.
Even the BLM anti-police protests could be turned to an advantage if the President plays his hand right. He should harken back to the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement act, drafted by then-Senator Biden and signed into law with bravura flourish by then-President Clinton. Pushing back against criticisms that liberals were soft on crime, Biden proudly asserted: “The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties. That is what is in this bill. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has 70 enhanced penalties…. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new state prison cells.” Trump must unload on Biden for these policies that led directly to disproportionate, and many argue unfair and socially destructive, incarceration of black men…and contrast that with his own criminal justice reforms and First Step Act, complete with testimony from the grateful black men reunited with their families.
And, of course, Trump has every right to make Biden’s advanced age and mental slippage a campaign issue. If elected president, Joe Biden will be older on his first day of office than Ronald Reagan was on his last. As such, Trump must drive home the point that a vote for Joe Biden is not a vote for the cardboard cut-out before you at all…but rather for a cabal of well-placed, D.C. insiders who care only about wielding power rather than doing what is best for the American people. This is a powerful argument, as yet underplayed by Team Trump. If not now, when?
Joe Biden is a beatable candidate. Donald Trump can beat him. But he first has to stop beating himself. If things continue, he will be the first one-term president since his old nemesis’ father, George H.W. Bush. And that would be a bitter pill for the Donald to swallow. Perhaps step one is to place a portrait of Bush 41 (along with his commanding poll numbers just five months before he was defeated by Bill Clinton) in the Oval Office directly across the Resolute desk so Trump has to look at it every day. And then someone should whisper in his ear, “he lost because he didn’t do what he was elected to do.” Anything is better than this.