Without the pandemic and protests, Trump had a serious chance of reelection, which is a disturbing commentary on American politics. But this is now like saying that Herbert Hoover would have been a spiffing president without the Great Depression. Trump has been similarly and permanently marked by failure.
What other president would have played down the advance of a global health crisis to keep stock prices inflated? Traveling in India at the end of February, Trump said that the coronavirus was “very well under control” in the United States and that “the situation will start working itself out.” Then he added in a tweet, “Stock Market starting to look very good to me.” This delay in facing reality was an error on the scale of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act signed by Hoover, which set off a global round of protectionism that expanded and deepened the depression.
What other president would have fed populist resistance to public health measures as the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread? It was in mid-April that Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!,” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd amendment. It is under siege!” Trump actively undermined advice on lockdowns from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health in favor of the fringe views of a small number of armed protesters. And he chose — amazingly, alarmingly — to equate essential health measures with gun confiscation. I can think of no presidential precedent. It is unique in its recklessness.
When it came to the protests, Trump both cowered and raged. What other president would have employed a quote used by segregationists — “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — in dealing with a national revolt against deadly discrimination? What other president would have turned tear gas and stun grenades against lawful protesters in order to strut across a park and hold up a Bible for the cameras? Not even Richard Nixon made such a public display of his viciousness and crassness.
Trump’s failure to rally the “silent majority” against social disorder is a hopeful commentary on American politics. Most Americans, silent or not, quickly realized that the overwhelming majority of protesters were enemies not of social order but of social injustice. When Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) eventually joined a Black Lives Matter march, Trump was left discredited and largely isolated in his racism.
Examples of Trump’s failed leadership can be multiplied. What other president would have promoted a potentially harmful drug as a miracle cure during a pandemic? Or tried to implicate the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a divisive, racially charged political stunt?
This is not to say that a repudiation of Trump would quickly lead to a Republican rejection of Trumpism. The president’s use of economic distress, demographic transition and security threats to scapegoat migrants, Muslims and refugees found a deeper resonance among party regulars than I thought it would. Trump’s exploitation of rapid social change to fertilize evangelical Christians’ fears and harvest their support has been a signature success (though it has badly damaged the reputation of evangelicalism in the process).
A Trump defeat would at least begin a GOP debate on its ideological future. If Republicans lose control of the Senate, that debate will be more urgent. But most Republicans angling to be Trump’s political successor (see Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and even former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley) are embracing key elements of Trumpism — without, presumably, the erratic megalomania.
The ideological carnage that Trump has wreaked on the American right is large and lasting. In 2016, he demonstrated that it was still possible to win in the electoral college with a message of white grievance. His partisans have secured nearly complete control of the structures of the Republican Party. And Trump’s performative prejudice has increased the boldness of bigots across the board.
None of Trump’s flailing and dereliction guarantees reelection defeat. It is not possible to reliably predict presidential weather patterns five months in advance. But on the health of our country, and on the unity of our country, Trump has been a peerless failure. If he loses, it will be because he already belongs on the Mount Rushmore of presidential losers.