With impeachment behind him, mounting evidence of illegal sabotage from the prior administration, a freshly signed “phase one” China trade deal, record low unemployment, a booming economy and a weak slate of Democrat candidates, President Donald J. Trump was poised for a triumphant 2020 and an easy glide to re-election.
Kobe Bryant was still alive. The Kansas City (MO) Chiefs were marching through the NFL playoffs. The NBA and college basketball seasons were in full swing. The world was still laughing at Ricky Gervais’ takedown of smug Hollywood types at the Golden Globe Awards. Democrats were still feigning horror at the killing of Iranian terrorist, General Qassem Soleimani.
The year was off to an eventful start. Most Americans had a general vision of how they expected 2020 to go. The majority of the country was hopeful. President Trump was divisive, as always. He was at odds with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and was steadily pecking away on Twitter. While tiresome, it had all become fairly routine. Primaries were beginning and Bernie Sanders seemed to be the favorite in the Democrat race for the White House, something which would almost assure a Trump victory. Four more years of economic strength, American isolationism, accountability from trade partners and NATO members, social media childishness, lower taxes and regulations – the mixed bag that had become the Trump Presidency – seemed all but certain.
In a place called Wuhan, of which most Americans had never heard, a virus was spreading. More people were getting sick than in most winters, and they were getting sicker than usual. In Minneapolis, George Floyd and Derek Chauvin were going about their business, perhaps crossing paths at El Nuevo Rodeo Club, where they both worked security jobs.
Five months later, the nation and the world is in turmoil. Millions have been sickened by the virus of debatable origin. Hundreds of thousands have died worldwide. A series of racially divisive events have occurred, several resulting in death, some at the hands of police, headlined by the killing of George Floyd. Protesters came out of lockdown and shed their masks to march for racial justice and police reform. Some of them joined forces with radical domestic terrorists not interested in the worthy causes of the peaceful protesters, but intent on sowing discord, violence and anarchy.
Buildings and vehicles have burned. Businesses have been looted. Statues have been vandalized and destroyed. People have been beaten and killed. Police have reacted to defend and protect, but a few – a very few – have overreacted and sparked new flames of unrest. Several good cops have been killed.
Terms and concepts we had never before considered have become familiar: social distancing, shutdown, face covering, autonomous zone, defund the police, phased reopening. Images, brands and inanimate objects that have been among us for years are suddenly offensive: Lego policemen, Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, Eskimo Pies, Elmer Fudd’s rifle, the Dixie Chicks, statues of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
The medical, economic, social and political landscapes have all changed dramatically in five months. Nowhere is that more clear than when looking at the Presidential race and the campaigns of Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
“Hidin’ Biden,” as some have called the former Vice President, has spent much of the last few months at home. His limited interviews have mostly taken place in his basement. He’s made plenty of gaffes, like telling the Breakfast Club audience they “ain’t black” if they haven’t decided to vote for him, and repeatedly blundering the numbers of coronavirus patients and deaths. While questions of his mental acuity persist, at least on the right, Biden largely gets a pass from most media and all Democrats when he says something that is either ridiculous, inaccurate or downright incoherent. While the gaffes and mumblings are alarming, they are generally unintentional. They can generally be explained by Biden’s lifelong pattern of gaffes, old age coupled with potential neurological decline and privileged assumptions that Democrats make about their supporters.
Equally alarming is the fact that Donald Trump seems to be in full control of his words. None of his tweeting, none of his rhetoric or press conference rambling is due to an aging brain that might not be as sharp as it once was. It’s all intentional.
In recent days, the President has resumed saying “Chinese virus,” and has repeatedly used the term, “kung flu.” Are these major issues when compared with the world events with which he is grappling? No, but they are unnecessary. They won’t gain him any votes or any more love from his very loyal supporters. They may turn off some undecideds and they will invite criticism, even from some in his party. He tweeted three times recently that Dr. Anthony Fauci “has nothing to do with NFL football.” This is another item better left alone. Fauci has much higher approval ratings that Trump does. Criticizing him publicly could exacerbate the notion that Trump downplays the severity of the virus and is another example of something that might make loyal supporters smile, but won’t bring in new votes.
Criticizing increased virus testing is also a bad move. In a June 15 roundtable discussion, President Trump said, “If you don’t test, you don’t have any cases. If we stopped testing right now, we’d have very few cases if any.” His point was that the U.S. is one of the world’s leaders in testing volume, and we are increasing it daily, so seeing increased positive cases should not be a surprise. With a seemingly decreasing mortality rate, increased testing just serves to increase panic at higher infection numbers. But phrasing it the way he did leaves him much too easily open for a barrage of criticism. It sounds like he is in favor of stopping testing and believes that the virus would go away if we did. The media can get away with essentially implying that he has a dangerous lack of understanding of the issue and many will believe that narrative because of Trump’s style of often putting his thoughts into the simplest of terms.
Likewise, tweeting “LAW AND ORDER” every couple of days, is pointless. It throws red meat to the MAGA-hat wearers, but sends a potentially threatening message to people who feel that “law and order” is a veiled term for a totalitarian and racist state. Those aren’t his sentiments, but the media can play it that way, and some of the public will fall for it. The other danger in tweeting about law and order is that he hasn’t actually done much to back it up. In one sense, his hands are more tied than many may realize, as most law enforcement agencies are under state and local control. Tweeting and talking tough stand in contrast with the image of the statue of Andrew Jackson – in front of the White House – with ropes around it and rioters attempting to pull it down.
The President was far more effective at his twittering on June 18 when he sent out 21 tweets about millions of dollars proposed or granted for specific state and local infrastructure projects, many of which were (coincidentally?) in battleground states. He should do more of that. If the Tweeter in Chief more frequently took a serious, positive, uplifting tone – and if he carried that over into his rallies and press briefings – it just may start to shift the momentum back toward his campaign.
Recent polls show Biden leading Trump both nationally and in most battleground states. Similarly, many 2016 polls showed Trump trailing Hillary Clinton right up until election day. But this feels different. These numbers are worse, and more widespread. And there’s just not much going right for the President these days, like there was just five months ago. His highly touted economy is battered. Most objective observers don’t blame him for this, and many will admit the economy was very good for most people (including several minority groups). But many observers aren’t objective, and regardless, it was his best issue and it’s now tainted.
Just as criticism of Trump’s pandemic response was reaching a crescendo, the infection numbers began to drop and some states started reopening. The job numbers began improving and the markets came roaring back. Then George Floyd was murdered on a Minneapolis street and the world broke again, taking Trump’s campaign with it. Now the President has invited new criticism for his comments, his media stunts (the Bible photo op at St. John’s Church) and his inaction on the chaos that has ensued for the last month. He needs to shift both the narrative and his reaction to it very quickly.
This President sits among a small group of Presidents who have taken actions that indisputably helped black Americans. Very few non-Republicans give him any credit for this. Trump was known as many things before he ran for President, and invited criticism for many reasons. Being a racist was not one of them. Before George Floyd died, Trump stood to garner more support from blacks than most of his recent GOP predecessors, something which could have ushered in a greater electoral victory than even 2016. That seems all but lost now and is in desperate need of revival.
So it’s all about messaging at this point for the President. He should reduce or eliminate the antagonistic, childish tweets and comments. He should speak to all Americans with a voice of hope and compassion for sufferers of the virus and of racial injustice. He should tout his support of the black community and his plans for a post-virus economic boom. He should stop using derisive and divisive rhetoric about kneeling athletes, Democrat governors (even if they are bungling their responses to the virus and to social unrest) and stop using high schoolish terms like “kung flu” and “lamestream media.”
If the President wants to be re-elected (and there are those who question if truly does), he should listen to the people – whoever they may be – around him who are surely giving him this advice, if he hasn’t fired them all. When things were running smoothly in America, even with impeachment as a reality, Trump’s rhetoric was merely a sideshow, or maybe it just seems that way in hindsight. Now, with America divided over masks, shutdowns, statues, protests, police and all the rest 2020 has to offer, his commentary only serves to further divide. Biden can sit in his basement and run the clock out while Trump self destructs. The debates could very much be a game-changer, as Trump shows high energy and Biden stutters and mumbles, but they are months away, and only weeks before the election. It could be much too little, too late for Trump’s re-election chances and he can’t wait until September to right the ship. It’s time for Donald Trump to quickly and constructively turn his focus to the real issues facing the country, and away from his favorite subject – himself.