When you watch Donald Trump — for example, during last night’s town hall — it is easy to think that all you are getting is a stream of consciousness: in Freudian terms, the id of Trump’s psyche. But a better way to understand him is to think of Trump’s avarice, as well as his blatantly racist rhetoric, as being in tension with some (though certainly not all) of his advisers. The Republican Party is clearly trying to keep Trump within the bounds of conventional right-wing respectability, just as hard as he constantly escapes.
So, for example, after Charlottesville in 2017, Trump didn’t give just one speech, he gave several. In the first, he blamed violence “on many sides.” In a second, written by his advisers, he called white supremacists “repugnant.” A third was again scripted. It was only after it, and in response to press questions that Trump departed from his advisers’ scripts to say, “Not all of those people were neo-Nazis” and that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
It is possible to listen carefully to Trump’s speeches and to infer from them what some of his advisers are likely telling him — and how far he is listening to them. Going into Thursday’s town hall event, it’s likely that Trump was told to woo older voters — and to tone down the outrageous statements.
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Trump’s election victory in 2016 was one of a series of similar breakthroughs: the votes for Brexit in Britain, the support for the Front National in France. What each had in common was a switch by older voters to the right. In the 2016 election; Hillary Clinton won more votes among voters aged 18-29 and 30-49 than Trump (58-28 percent and 51-40 percent) but lost among voters aged 50-64 (45-51 percent) and aged over 65 (44-53 percent).
The spread of COVID-19 poses a particular problem to Trump and indeed to every right-wing populist government. Some such governments have taken the approach of denying the reality of the pandemic. That has indeed been the picture in the U.S., in Brazil and (to some extent) in Britain — in consequence, all three governments are in difficulty. There are, however, a number of right-wing governments which have taken the opposite approach and emphasized the need to lock down and protect elderly voters. Where that has happened (in India, Hungary and elsewhere), right-populist governments look more secure in power than they did six months ago.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., among voters aged 50-65, 42 percent now strongly disapprove of Trump’s handling of COVID. Among voters over 65 years old, that proportion rises to a staggering 51 percent. Older voters are still more likely to vote for him, because of their greater support for right-wing politics. But the only age group that still gives him a plurality is the over-65s, and even there, because of his mishandling of the pandemic, his support is shrinking.
A candidate can win an election with majority support of voters over 50 years old. But someone who wins only among voters age 65 and up is likely to lose the popular vote (assuming it is fairly counted) by a landslide. Trump’s advisers can see, just as clearly as everyone else, how the numbers are turning against him.
One could see these incompatible pressures — the desire to play down the risk posed by the pandemic, while still trying to satisfy older voters — playing out at Trump’s event last night.
When asked to talk about COVID, Trump did not deny the reality of the disease, but he did misrepresent its current level of threat. His chosen soundbites, “we’re rounding the corner” and “we did the right thing,” acknowledged the reality of the disease — but they made it seem as if his government had taken the correct actions in response. Asked if he was seeking “herd immunity,” a plan that would involve deliberately speeding up the impact of the disease, Trump maintained that this wasn’t his plan. Yet he continued demanding that the economy stay open. (“The cure cannot be worse than the disease itself,” he said.) That approach has been destructive and will continue to cause unnecessary deaths and suffering — but this was Trump playing the game of keeping the real cruelty hidden behind abstractions and ideology. He was admitting the reality of COVID and not denying that protective measures are needed — “I say wear the mask, I’m fine with it,” he told his questioner CNN’s Savannah Guthrie — while simultaneously trying to justify his record in relation to the disease.
This takes us to the second way in which COVID is shaping the election. In the two weeks since the first presidential debate, Trump has been diagnosed with COVID-19, hospitalized and recovered. His deficit in the polls has widened from 7 percent to 10 percent. His advisers, of course, are trying to mitigate the damage.
When Trump was filmed in hospital, looking pale and out of breath, he became the “ill Duce,” not the invincible authoritarian of his imagination but a vulnerable man. Yet it’s not simply the fact that he contracted COVID that accounts for his drop in the polls. Trump has been out of hospital for 10 days and the poll gap has continued to widen. This week, Trump has played up his survival from coronavirus, saying he “felt like Superman” and was now “immune to the disease,” disregarding the hundreds of thousands of (disproportionately older) people who’ve died of the illness across the country.
During his Town Hall meeting, Trump tried to present himself as a moderate figure, a “normal president.” Yet we are talking about Trump here, so there were no apologies, no moments of recognition. Instead, we saw the familiar peevish irritability, the interruptions. We saw all the old Trump tricks, trying to deflect blame on to “antifa.”
Asked to justify the numerous conspiracy theories that he has amplified, Trump seemed to try to stick largely to handlers’ orders. Asked if he really believed that military figures had given him COVID, Trump answered “No. I don’t where it came from.”
Yet quizzed about his repeated support for the QAnon conspiracy community, Trump threw his wildest supporters a piece of red meat, saying, “I do know they are very much against pedophilia,” though he tried to insist he knew nothing about them. Asked about the conspiracy theories he has been retweeting, in which Biden is supposed to have had a team of SEALs murdered in order to cover up the supposedly faked murder of Osama bin Laden, Trump fell back on his version of the line that retweets are not endorsements, saying: “That was a retweet. That was an opinion of somebody.”
Putting this town hall in its proper context, we grasp how Trump’s position has weakened considerably.
COVID-19 is dangerous to Trump because it poses the greatest risk to the very age demographic he relies on most. Trump is now asking people in this demographic to support policies that make their own deaths more likely, and this idea is causing unease among growing numbers of them. It is the moment at which reality risks intruding into Trump’s fantasies.
With an enormous effort of will, Trump has been able to hold together much of his coalition up until this point — but as the election nears, his support is shrinking. His persistent attempts to downplay COVID-19 may well cost him older voters — but as we learned in 2016, only time will tell.