So why does it seem that Trump isn’t even trying to win?
The three most significant threats to Trump’s reelection are the pandemic, the country’s terrible economic situation, and the eagerness of Democrats to turn him out of office. In every case, the president has chosen not just to avoid taking actions that might help him win, but to actively worsen his situation.
Trump’s decisions are substantively appalling, resulting in more death, misery and political instability, which is what’s most objectionable about them. But even from the standpoint of his own self-interest, they’re almost incomprehensible:
1. Trump is making the pandemic worse. On Wednesday, we set a record for new covid-19 infections. While some states have seen steady drops in cases, other states — such as Florida, Texas, and Arizona — are experiencing a surge. It does not seem to be an accident that many of these states are those where resistance to social distancing and mask-wearing was highest, and where Republican governors were most eager to end stay-at-home orders.
Yet the president himself seems to have all but given up trying to manage the federal government’s response, as though he got tired of hearing about the pandemic and wants to focus on other things. He went from incompetence to indifference.
That would be bad enough, but he’s actively making it worse. Not only has he refused to wear a mask in public — probably the single most important safety measure we can take — but he has helped polarize the very idea of mask-wearing, so that the way you now show you’re a loyal Trump voter is to not wear one.
He held a rally in Tulsa, packing thousands of people into an indoor facility (though not as many as he had hoped), and only a tiny portion of them were wearing masks.
Perhaps most shocking of all, the administration is withdrawing support for coronavirus testing sites, as though they are taking to heart Trump’s oft-expressed belief that testing is bad because it helps you identify people who are sick, and that makes the numbers bigger.
In some other reality, Trump would say, “What we’re doing is not working. We need to try something else,” if for no other reason than it makes him look bad. Instead, it’s as though he said, “122,000 Americans have died? How about we go for 200,000?”
2. Trump is keeping the economy from recovering. Ever since the pandemic forced the American economy into a kind of medically induced coma, Trump and congressional Republicans have resisted using the full power of the federal government to help. At every step, it has been Democrats pleading for larger and more aggressive stimulus, while Trump and his party negotiate that stimulus down.
Democrats are now advocating extended unemployment benefits, further cash payments to families, and aid to states and localities to prop up their collapsing budgets, while Trump thinks that all that’s necessary is for him to talk about how great everything is going.
Meanwhile, if you add together the workers receiving unemployment benefits and those who have applied but haven’t yet gotten them, they total a staggering 33 million people out of work, or 1 in 5 American workers. Another 1.5 million applied for unemployment just last week.
If Trump were more serious about getting the economy on its feet, just out of pure self-interest he’d agree to pour trillions of dollars on the economy to mitigate the recession. But he isn’t.
3. Trump is mobilizing Democratic voters and demobilizing Republicans. A lot of attention has been paid to the fact that Trump has gone on a crusade against mail voting, claiming it’s inherently fraudulent and a way for Democrats to “rig” the election against him. The paranoid lies he tells pose a serious threat to the legitimacy of our entire system, since he’s encouraging his followers not to accept the results of an election he doesn’t win.
What hasn’t been discussed as much is that Trump’s rhetoric on mail balloting is making it more likely that he’ll lose. As the primaries so far have shown, there’s an enormous demand for mail ballots as people are hesitant to go to the polls in the midst of a pandemic. There will be more mail balloting this year than ever before.
In the past, mail balloting has benefited neither party. But that may not be true this year, precisely because Trump has taken it up as a cause. Democrats now see voting by mail as not only easier and more convenient, but a way to stick it to the president they despise. Meanwhile, Trump is discouraging Republicans from voting by mail. If they take his advice they’ll have to go to the polls, where they could encounter long lines or be discouraged by bad weather — or by the pandemic.
Trump has spent a lifetime trying to avoid being seen as a loser. A little over four months from now, he could become one of the biggest losers in American history, only the fourth president in the last 100 years to fail in his reelection bid.
Yet for some reason, he won’t do any of the things that would make that outcome less likely. Joe Biden probably can’t believe his luck.
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