Let us assume, for the sake of discussion, that there will be a presidential election in 159 days as scheduled. This assumption, given the extent of the COVID pandemic combined with comprehensive Republican resistance to the very notion of voting, requires a leap of faith that would challenge even the vast talents of Simone Biles.
Bear with me, though, because there is at least one person in the U.S. who believes there will be an election in November, and the thought of it appears to have him scared spitless. That person is Donald J. Trump, and he has ample reason for concern.
Despite numerous attempts by the Trump campaign to frame his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, as a mentally muddled “deep state” China operative who caused COVID with the help of Barack Obama after singlehandedly corrupting the entire nation of Ukraine, voters do not appear to be taking the bait.
Virtually every poll has Biden leading Trump by a substantial margin. This, in itself, is a profoundly noteworthy phenomenon that also has much to do with the pandemic. Biden is a notorious liability to himself on the campaign trail, but the fact that COVID sent him to his room has proven to be a boon; he has far fewer opportunities to blow himself up from his basement, and if he makes a solid choice of running mate, he may never have to leave the building until he moves into the White House.
We learned in 2016 that polls have a tendency to be about as valuable as a brass nickel nowadays, but the margin between Trump and Hillary Clinton at this point four years ago was narrow. Four years later, not so much.
The latest national survey has Biden holding a whopping 11-point lead over Trump. The newest Reuters/Ipsos poll shows Biden’s lead shrinking from 9 points to 6 since their last tally, but a 6-point lead at this juncture is twice the margin Clinton enjoyed a quadrennial ago. Biden is leading Trump among independent voters, young voters, and “hater” voters who detest both candidates. The latter group was basically Trump’s margin of victory in 2016, but they appear to be balking hard this time around.
Trump is hemorrhaging support among elderly voters, a group that has borne the brunt of COVID’s lethality since the pandemic began. This is blood on the moon not only for Trump, but for Mitch McConnell’s hopes of hanging on to his party’s majority in the Senate.
“One of the most durable political assets that Republicans have enjoyed throughout the 21st century is their edge among Americans 65 and older, who tend to turn out at the polls more reliably than any other group,” reports The Washington Post. “But with President Trump’s inept and erratic handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic, he is rapidly losing support among the age group most vulnerable to its ravages — which is a big warning sign to Republicans as they look to the fall.”
Trump’s campaign brain trust went to the White House last week to warn him of his peril. Three days later, the campaign chiefs from Florida and Arizona were summoned to the Roosevelt Room, where Trump gnawed on them furiously like a dog with a length of old rawhide.
Not long after, the leadership of the national campaign was quietly reshuffled: Long-time GOP operative Bill Stepien was named deputy to campaign manager Brad Parscale, effectively kneecapping Parscale’s influence. Stepien is an ally of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and this move was a “DC-style coup” that has given Kushner “almost singular control over the 2020 re-election campaign,” according to a report in Business Insider.
Masticate that cud a moment. Kushner’s trail of failures as he assumed an ever-expanding portfolio of duties in the Trump White House was a running joke until COVID hit. Trump gave Kushner a series of vital tasks to confront the pandemic. Kushner — ever eager to pour honey into pop-in-law’s orange-hued ear — placed politics before science and helped get a whole slew of people killed. It’s not incompetence when you do it on purpose.
This is not the behavior of a healthy campaign, but behavior has been the dilemma from the jump. There has been ample reporting on the avalanche of hateful mayhem Trump unleashed this week, which was almost certainly a product of the bad campaign noise surrounding him. Less discussed, however, were the two inexplicable confrontations Trump instigated against states that are vital to his re-election.
In 2016, Michigan was one of the swing states that pushed Trump over the top. The state has been grievously impacted by COVID since March, and the center of the state has been in crisis after the failure of two dams caused massive flooding.
In preparation for the November election, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson mailed out applications for absentee ballots last week. This drew the frantic ire of Trump, who threatened to withhold COVID relief funds for the state. This, from the man who recently encouraged armed right-wing “Reopen” protesters to disrupt the business of government at the Capitol building in Lansing.
“To have this kind of distraction is just ridiculous to be honest,” Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told “CBS This Morning” in response. “Threatening to take money away from a state that is hurting as bad as we are right now is just scary. And I think something that is unacceptable.”
North Carolina is another key state in Trump’s re-election plan. Over the Memorial Day weekend, Trump took to Twitter to pick a fight with Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, demanding he guarantee a full arena for the summer’s planned GOP convention. Absent that guarantee, Trump threatened to move the convention to a more compliant state.
Making promises about what will happen next week is deeply irresponsible under the present circumstances. Making promises about what will happen months from now is the very height of folly, yet this is what Trump wanted from North Carolina, a state that has been making arrangements for this convention for the last two years.
Trump’s threat sent the state’s government into a wild scramble, and according to reports, his own campaign didn’t know he was going to pick this fight until they read about it on social media along with everyone else. Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Brian Kemp of Georgia, two mini-Trumps who have embraced his reckless economic reopening schedule, leapt at the chance to snatch the convention from Cooper.
With one fell swoop, Trump has managed to unnecessarily antagonize three Southern states that are central to his hopes for remaining in office. North Carolina isn’t happy with Trump’s sudden and inexplicable threat to remove the convention, and the people of Florida and Georgia likely will not embrace the idea of inviting a potential COVID bomb into their midst come summertime. All three states are currently in play for the general election. Stack Michigan in the pile, and Trump appears more and more to be an arsonist looking to burn his own campaign down to the stumps.
It has not been a good week for the president. His crusade to convince people that mail-in voting is a Democratic election-theft scam ran into a twin bill of hypocrisies: A West Virginia postal worker was charged with election fraud after altering several absentee ballots from Democratic to Republican, and it was revealed that White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has voted by mail 11 times in the last 10 years. Beat that with a stick.
On Wednesday, Trump winged his way to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch of the much-anticipated SpaceX rocket. On the day the U.S. COVID death toll surpassed 100,000 souls, Trump was eager to give a triumphalist speech after the launch to proclaim that everything is awesome again. When inclement weather interfered, causing the launch to be scrubbed, Trump was forced to cancel his appearance and slink back to Washington D.C. The grim death toll owned the news cycle, and Trump — who watches these things the way cats watch laser dots on the wall — was all too aware.
Before the pandemic struck, the Trump campaign’s entire plan was to run on the economy. On Thursday, another 2.1 million unemployment claims swelled the ranks of applicants to an astonishing 40 million people. Trump’s rush to reopen the COVID-smashed economy as a means to salvage his re-election prospects have run headlong into the fact that a vast majority of citizens have deep reservations about getting back to the old normal, and his core campaign strategy has fallen to dust.
More broadly, a consensus is building within the medical and scientific communities that COVID has no quick fix, and will be here for a long time to come. “There’s a good chance the coronavirus will never go away,” The Washington Post ominously reported on Thursday. “Even after a vaccine is discovered and deployed, the coronavirus will likely remain for decades to come, circulating among the world’s population.”
Rather than accept this scientific assessment and act accordingly, Trump is thrashing against it like a boated swordfish … and this has not been lost on his allies, who first and foremost seek to please the boss. “In at least a dozen states, health departments have inflated testing numbers or deflated death tallies by changing criteria for who counts as a coronavirus victim and what counts as a coronavirus test,” reported Politico late Wednesday night.
How these people think they can get away with this is a flat mystery to me. COVID does not care what you think or what you want. Move the numbers around as you please. The call is coming from inside the house, and the more these lickspittles kick the can down the road at Trump’s implied behest, the harsher the consequences will be for all of us, but most especially for them. The dead remember, as do the living.
By the metrics of normal U.S. politics, this thunderclap of woes might compel a sitting president to pull a Lyndon “Shall Not Seek, Will Not Accept” Johnson and voluntarily accept their fate as a failed one-termer. These, however, are not normal times. COVID promises to disrupt the election even under the most favorable of circumstances, and the mail-in vote option — complex, but hardly unworkable — is under full frontal assault by the White House. Trump’s core supporters are as devoted as they have ever been, and if turnout is as low as it was in 2016, he stands a good chance of being re-elected by the same slim margin.
One hundred million things can and will change between now and November. Joe Biden’s decades-old talent for public self-immolation hardly makes his victory a mortal lock, and we still need to have an election during a pandemic … but if Donald Trump is actively trying to defenestrate his own campaign, his recent behavior has been a road map for how to do exactly, precisely that. Meanwhile, the dying continues.