But what these Republicans are not permitting themselves to say out loud is even more revealing. The very fact that admitting to the real reason for Trump’s travails is off limits itself shows, by omission, why he’s in so much trouble.
The latest outbreak of GOP panic about Trump’s chances is reflected in a barrage of new reports from the New York Times, the Associated Press, Axios and The Post. Running through them all is a remarkably consistent through line.
It’s this: You cannot find a Republican admitting that Trump’s disastrous handling of the novel coronavirus — the central issue in this campaign — is a big reason he’s losing. For these Republicans, the very existence of Trump’s authorship of this catastrophe cannot be acknowledged. So public revulsion over this sick and dying elephant in the room — and the role that’s playing in Trump’s travails — also cannot be conceded.
“A lot of Republican consultants are frustrated because we want the president’s campaign to be laser-focused on the economy,” one GOP strategist tells the Times, adding that the message should be that “Trump built a great economy” that has since been damaged by coronavirus.
Similarly, The Post reports that aides believe focusing on the spectacular Trump economy before the pandemic hit — and promising that Trump would rebuild it — is his winning message.
In other words, the basic analysis Republicans offer here is that Trump’s presidency had been a towering success before an incidental outside disaster slammed into it, like a meteor from outer space.
Putting aside the absurdity of claiming Trump built a great economy — in reality he inherited many of its trends — what Republicans cannot speak aloud is that Trump is likely to lose largely because of his actual mismanagement of the greatest public health crisis in modern times.
The closest Republicans come to acknowledging this is in the Times piece, which suggests they want Trump to do more to change voter “perceptions” of his handling of the virus. In this telling, perceptions are the only problem here, and recasting Trump’s actual performance simply requires sufficiently artful and properly focused messaging.
Trapped in an ‘echo chamber’
Meanwhile, Trump is now obsessed with his new attack on emails allegedly from Hunter Biden. This fake scandal, which is largely unsubstantiated and based on false premises, suggests Trump believes a hyped revelation about newly found emails will save him, just like in 2016.
But the AP reports that Republicans worry this is largely backfiring, due to the toxic feedback loop created by the right wing media’s aggressive promotion of the story:
That, some Republicans believe, creates an echo chamber with Trump, an avid cable news consumer, and convinces him that the storylines are more broadly meaningful than they are.
The result of this, Republicans tell the AP, is a failure to “define Biden.”
Similarly, Axios reports that some Republicans want Trump to merely step back and let Biden define himself at the final debate this week. They say Trump must avoid interrupting Biden so he reveals his true “doddering” self.
“All Trump has to do is give people permission to vote for him," one GOP source tells Axios, as if the past four years never happened and the only problem is that Trump isn’t letting his opponent’s negatives sink him.
It’s true that all this shows that Trump is both overly prone to having faith in the fearsome power of right wing disinformation and that he’s trapped in 2016, a blissful time when he was the largely unknown outsider that undecided voters might take a chance on over an opponent who had been defined negatively in the public eye for decades.
But what’s missing is an acknowledgment of the real reason it’s such a problem for him that this isn’t 2016 anymore. It isn’t just that Biden is proving far harder to define negatively than Hillary Clinton, though this is the case (which is another deeply dispiriting story in its own right).
It’s also that Trump is the incumbent this time, and he has a record to defend. It’s a record of extraordinary failure, and the coronavirus is at the center of it.
A spectacular failure as president
Majorities don’t believe the virus is under control now and want more government action to rein it in even if that slows the recovery, rejecting Trump’s central story of the moment. Voters think Biden will better handle the virus by large margins. Approval of Trump’s handling of it is at a near-low, rivaling where it stood amid the last coronavirus peak.
Indeed, this comes as we may be heading into a third peak. According to calculations by NBC News, in the past two weeks, we’ve seen cases increase by 25 percent or more in 28 states.
Republicans are required to pretend that none of this is happening or that it’s simply not that big a deal. Trump’s own rallies — the most visible manifestations of his case for a second term right now — unfold largely without masks and social distancing, themselves dramatizing this pathology as vividly as one could imagine.
So it’s hardly surprising that Republicans do not permit themselves to acknowledge what a catastrophe this whole crisis has been, let alone Trump’s own culpability in exacerbating it or the toll that has taken on his political fortunes and theirs.
But the rest of us know exactly what happened. That — and Trump’s refusal to acknowledge or take responsibility for any of it — is exactly why he’s losing.