It is becoming increasingly clear that Trump is flailing, trying desperately to reverse his sinking fortunes. We know that he is relentlessly focused on ratings and polls and however much he may like to think that these are being manipulated by his enemies to make him look bad, he has to realize at a gut level that things really are not looking good. Just yesterday comes news of a poll that shows him losing to Joe Biden by 13 points in Pennsylvania, a state he won in 2016, one of the small group of states that includes Michigan and Wisconsin that gave him his electoral college victory despite losing in the overall national vote.
As his poll numbers tank, he has tried to fall back on the familiar things that he could depend upon, such as massive rallies full of adoring fans, to feel that he was still much beloved. But these have not worked either. The Tulsa rally, supposed to be the rousing kick-off of his re-election campaign, was an unmitigated disaster, with a paltry 6,200 people in a 19,000 seat stadium. Then he tried to erase that memory with a rally in New Hampshire last Saturday but that was cancelled at the last minute. Although the campaign blamed it on Tropical Storm Fay, that was quickly dismissed since the storm was never going to be anywhere near the rally town of Portsmouth. The campaign said that they would re-schedule in one or two weeks but so far, there has been no word.
The suspicion is that projected attendance was going to be again poor and resulted in the cancellation. That suspicion has becomes stronger with the news yesterday that Trump has demoted his campaign manager Brad Parscale, once touted as a genius, and replaced him with a veteran GOP operative Bill Stepien. Parscale had predicted that there would be huge crowds in Tulsa.
In the absence of having these large audiences, Trump has tried to commandeer other vehicles to reach a national audience. At one point he was hijacking the daily coronavirus press conferences to go on his rants until polls showed that public confidence in his handling of the pandemic was abysmal and that people trusted health experts like Anthony Fauci more. When the national media realized that these press conferences were becoming essentially platforms for Trump to make speeches and they started cutting away, he stopped doing them.
But now he seems to have decided that he can call press conferences ostensibly on some policy matter and then veer off into a campaign speech. This is what he did yesterday. It was supposed to be about announcing changes in trade policy with China but he quickly veered of into his usual ranting at length on various other topics. In the end there were only 15 minutes for questions
With large political rallies tough to pull off with the coronavirus gripping the country, the president has been using the backdrop of the White House to make his election pitch. It occurred most noticeably on Tuesday, when the president convened reporters for a press conference purportedly about punishing China, only to spend an hour repeatedly bashing presumptive 2020 rival Joe Biden’s policies in a stream-of-consciousness, rally-style speech. But it’s a tactic that goes back months, to the beginning of the coronavirus lockdowns, when the president spoke from the White House briefing room podium almost every night, mixing defenses of his administration’s work combating the pandemic with broadsides against Biden.
While Trump is not the first president to employ the “Rose Garden strategy,” a term used by political strategists for an incumbent president’s use of official events in an election year, he is the first to do so in such an overtly political way, according to former administration officials. In the process, Trump has upended yet another presidential norm and raised questions about the contours of a law intended to limit federal officials — but not the president — from using their office for political activity.
“Never before has a president arrived in the Rose Garden with a blow torch,” said former Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod. “Presidents may make announcements from the Rose Garden, they may make even oblique references to opposition, but no president has walked into the Rose Garden and basically delivered a one-hour excoriation about their opponent.”
Trump still has his main weapon, his Twitter account but how far that can continue to sustain him is unclear. Some of the people who flocked to him in 2016 now have buyer’s remorse and are speaking out.
Kevin, a lifelong Republican voter and pastor from Arizona, says he voted for Trump in 2016 “with high hopes for the future”. He knew that Trump didn’t have the same political experience as the other contenders, but he was optimistic he could grow into his new role.
Now he says: “I’ve seen how he has tried to divide our country and that is not something I want, nor what our country should have … This man is an absolute danger to our country.”
Jeffrey Farmer, from Massachusetts, certainly fits the bill of a non-polished but frustrated voice: he is immunocompromised and angered by Trump’s response to the pandemic. And he is certainly not the voice of a media-trained, focus-group prepped politico – just a person who formerly backed Trump.
“I don’t even know why I’m doing this stupid thing, because this is not what I do. I don’t do social media or anything. But I can’t take this any more,” he says.
Farmer voted for Trump in 2016 because of how much he disliked Hillary Clinton, but describes him as being “Like a Tasmanian devil,” who spends all day complaining on Twitter instead of doing his job.
“This guy couldn’t lead his way out of a wet frickin’ paper bag,” says Farmer.
An organization called Republican Voters Against Trump is collecting video testimonies from ordinary people and putting them online, highlighting their quotes like “I’d vote for a tuna fish sandwich before I’d vote for Donald Trump again.”
Then there is also the Lincoln Project that consists of wealthy Republicans who are producing attack ads against Trump. But Charles P. Pierce points out that we should treat the intervention of the Lincoln Project with ‘skeptical gratitude’ because those people have a very ugly history.
It’s the most high-profile of these temporary allies. Its commercials have been devastating attack ads that clearly have burrowed under the orange cheesecloth of the president’s skin. Good on them. But it should never be forgotten that many of these sharpies honed their skills in the Atwater-Rove era of Republican politics, and that during that time, the Republican Party sold its soul and lost its mind, I think irretrievably.
Cruelty, racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia became the essential raw materials out of which many of these folks molded candidacies. A toxic form of masculinity invaded the party’s personality. It was these campaigns that softened the ground for the march of this president* into the White House. If that were not the case—if, say, President Jeb Bush were running for re-election this time around—these deadly commercials would be aimed squarely at Joe Biden’s shining forehead. That should never be forgotten as we get closer to the election. Max Cleland is available for corroboration.
But this brings into sharp relief that problem that these people will face on the morning after Election Day in November. Most Republican operatives trained in the past 20-odd years have been trained in just this way. Their first duty then will be to begin the fumigation of the Republican Party, starting with its grimy conservative undercarriage. There’s a lot of soul-searching to do when you first have to search for your souls. They should go off into the wilderness and seek enlightenment. Governing will have to be someone else’s job.
Despite his sinking poll numbers, Trump may take comfort that his approval ratings among Republicans remain high, though even here they are slipping. But these should be taken with a bit of caution. They may be high because Republicans who have become disenchanted with Trump have stopped self-identifying themselves as such, leaving the party in the hands of the truly hard core. It would be interesting to see some concrete data about the number of such defections.