Donald Trump has finally collided with a reality he can’t make disappear. His arsenal of weapons is useless against the coronavirus. He tried spinning it away, thinking it would be enough to “win” the daily news cycle by pretending it wasn’t a big deal. The failure of that effort is evident in how quickly he dropped the happy talk when he saw what it was doing to the stock market. Now, having acknowledged the severity of the pandemic, he is defenseless against it. He can’t rage tweet at the virus. He can’t bully it. He can’t sue it. And — for the first time in his life — he can’t run away from it.
Deflect, rage, bully, sue, run. These are the only tools Donald Trump has. They are all he has ever had. After a criminally slow and inept response to the virus, we are now as a nation where Atlantic City was when Donald Trump bankrupted his casinos and got out, having inflicted economic devastation on the local residents. But Trump is President of the United States — he can’t get out this time. He has nowhere to turn and no way to deflect attention away from a story that he can’t control and that threatens to consume his presidency.
In just two brief weeks, the underpinnings of Trump’s re-election campaign have dissipated as quickly as the market gains from his time in office. His plan was straightforward. Claim to have created “the greatest economy ever”. Deploy a sophisticated foreign-backed social media disruption plan to divide the opposition and prevent Democrats from uniting. Encourage a strong third party candidacy with appeal to disaffected liberals. Use the force of the Justice Department and congressional allies to threaten a year-long investigation into Hunter Biden, either to goad Democrats into nominating a democratic socialist or to weaken the former vice president if he survived to become Trump’s opponent. Hold rallies to keep the base worked up. Suppress the Democratic vote.
And what has happened to these plans? The economic storyline was washed away, replaced by the yet-unknown fallout of trying to make the global economy hibernate until it is safe for people to shake hands again. Democrats have soberly started seeking a path to unity in the wake of the crisis. Bernie Sanders halted advertising and returned to Vermont to “reassess” his campaign, beginning the long process of preparing his fervent supporters for the inevitability of unifying behind Joe Biden, while remaining “focused on the government response to the coronavirus outbreak.” Significantly, Tulsi Gabbard ended her campaign today and endorsed Biden, removing the possibility that she would play spoiler next fall. Sen. Ron Johnson, Republican chair of the Finance Committee, was making noises about investigating Hunter Biden as recently as a couple of weeks ago, but any such efforts would be discordant (to put it mildly) while the country is on an emergency footing. The rallies are off until it is again safe to congregate in large groups, a period of unknown length. Trump’s only remaining campaign pillar is voter suppression, and it is a significant one, although Democrats will make a strong push for national mail-in balloting as social distancing efforts disrupt the still plentiful primary calendar.
The crisis has also given Trump a challenger he didn’t expect to have and is not prepared to face. He is getting neither the backward-looking version of Joe Biden who limped unconvincingly through the first year of the campaign, nor the nepotism-loving creature of a system people hate. In a moment that calls for leadership and compassion, Trump will face an experienced figure who feels people’s pain and can offer them hope. Voters within Trump’s orbit will continue to resolve dissonance about their leader’s performance by making excuses to themselves, but the contrast with Biden will be clear and meaningful to the rest of the country. Nothing else will matter to voters dealing with overpowering dislocation and anxiety about their physical and economic wellbeing. Biden’s flaws will be glaring but they will also be less important. In politics, context is everything.
For Trump to turn this around, he has to avoid blame for making the public health crisis far worse than it had to be through his ineptitude and inaction, survive the depths of an economic downturn that will significantly upend the country, and hope that by November we are gathering again in large groups, with businesses and jobs intact, the market buoyant, and people ready to credit him for a dramatic comeback. From where we stand today, this scenario looks as wishful as Trump’s breezy promise that the virus would be gone by April, while far more dire outcomes remain within the realm of possibility. Trump cannot control the things that need to happen to nudge us back to a campaign environment that would play out on his terms, and history tells us that presidents who are unable to get ahead of a crisis in an election year are punished by the electorate. His base can prevent a total political collapse, but it is hard to see how we go into November with Democrats sniping over Medicare for all and Hunter Biden’s name on everyone’s lips. Circumstances have irrevocably changed. Donald Trump’s re-election strategy is falling apart.