The collision of a deadly pandemic and the most consequential presidential election since 1932 may literally be epoch making. The domestic political landscape has already been transformed to President Donald Trump’s disadvantage.
Trump has no foreign policy achievements to tout. His actions on the international stage have been a farrago of impulsive improvisations. He cudgels our allies, coddles our enemies and generally behaves like a pigeon playing chess. North Korea is no closer to denuclearization than it was when Trump’s bromance with Kim Jong Un began. Iran is ramping up its nuclear program and trading blow for blow with us in Iraq. Syrian President Bashar Assad, Russian president Vladimir President Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are showing us the door in Syria. And Trump’s pride in ceding Afghanistan to the Taliban is a marketing ploy reminiscent of Tacitus’ quote about the Romans making a desert and calling it peace.
On the international trade front, Trump has little to show for his tariff wars other than some tweaks to NAFTA and a wave of farmer bankruptcies and suicides in the Midwest accompanied by financial bailouts in excess of those for the auto industry at the nadir the Great Recession.
Until now, three things have stood between Trump and defeat in November: the argument that he is our last, best chance to thwart socialism in America; the booming economy and bull market; and white fright.
Trump so badly wanted Bernie Sanders, the self-professed Democratic socialist, as his opponent in the general election that he did everything but send the Sanders campaign a personal check. Tweet after tweet sought to buoy Sanders, denigrate Joe Biden and sow discord among Democrats. But Democratic voters have proven to be more interested in defeating Trump and returning the country to some semblance of normalcy than they are in a revolution. The America-will-become-Venezuela dog ain’t gonna hunt against the surging Biden. Trump and his familiars will nevertheless try to gaslight the electorate about socialism, but only the most benighted among his base are going to buy Joe Biden as Hugo Chavez.
As a result of COVID-19, the spread of which in the United States has been abetted by Trump’s incompetence and inconstancy, the economy is entering a recession of unknown duration and depth, and the stock market has cratered. Hopefully the country will reopen for business and a recovery will be under way well before Election Day. But the bloom is off the economic rose, and all the bloviating and blustering in Trump’s considerable arsenal of demagoguery will not restore it.
Stimulus efforts will affect the political calculus, but the exact equation is uncertain. Trump will have to share both the blame for any corporate bailouts and the credit for doles to individuals with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and congressional Democrats, while doing without the psychic sustenance he derives from the idolatrous worship of the faithful at his rallies, at least for the foreseeable future.
This leaves Trump’s trump card: white fright. Expect in the coming weeks and months to see a recrudescence of race baiting and xenophobia. And to the usual narrative about waves of diseased, brown skinned, drug dealing rapists lapping at the southern border will be added the New Yellow Peril. The portents are plain enough. The pathogen sweeping the country is not COVID-19 or the coronavirus. It is, insistently, the Chinese flu. There are the usual invasion metaphors, and the presence of the virus has already been linked to the absence of Trump’s totemic border wall.
Will anyone be surprised when Trump again appeals to our prejudices and fears as a campaign staple while hugging and kissing the flag under which he would not serve when the country was calling its sons to the colors? No. It is as predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise.
But this gambit contributed to the suburban revolt and minority turnout that spelled Republican defeat in the 2018 mid-term elections. And the continuing rejection of the stunted and reactionary world view it represents may in part explain the record Democratic primary turnouts thus far in 2020.
He who defines an election wins it. If this election turns out to be about decency, dignity and competence in the Oval Office, Trump is headed to the ash heap of history.
Mac Stipanovich was chief of staff to former Gov. Bob Martinez and a long-time Republican strategist and lobbyist. He has since registered as no party affiliation and as a Democrat, and his voter registration now varies with the election cycle.