• Things can’t get any worse. According to Trump, the United States was a “third-world country” and a “dumping ground for everyone else’s problems.” “For those suffering and hurting, I say: Give Donald J. Trump a chance. I will fix it. What do you have to lose?”
• Governing is actually easy. In Trump’s view, politicians had failed because they were invariably “clowns” and “stupid.” America could be turned around by an inexperienced outsider without much difficulty.
• Moral leadership doesn’t really matter. “We’re not electing a pastor in chief,” said Jerry Falwell Jr. Many values voters put their entire emphasis on policy and judicial appointments, not on presidential character.
None of these propositions that helped elect Trump in 2016 can be credibly maintained in 2020. The entire foundation of the president’s previous appeal has been swept away.
The claim that things can’t get any worse is disproved by any day’s headlines. When Trump was elected in 2016, job growth was steady, poverty was declining and the unemployment rate had returned to pre-Great Recession levels. And oh, by the way, a pandemic was not needlessly taking lives, crashing the economy and putting the United States at a massive competitive disadvantage, due (in large part) to the cowardice and incompetence of the president.
In 2016, Trump argued that the United States was in an existential crisis in order to increase the public’s tolerance for risk. If everything was going to hell anyway, why not take a chance on a vivid but inexperienced leader? This turns out to have been a choice of monumental irresponsibility and immaturity. As any true conservative knows, things can always get worse. Trump has provided empirical evidence.
The claim that governing is easy would now sound delusional in the mouth of our overmatched president (though his claim that the U.S. government is afflicted by clowns still has the ring of truth). Trump has attempted to compensate for his incompetence by criticizing acts of his own administration on Twitter (“I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. . . . I will be meeting with them!!!”). This is an absolutely bizarre way to conduct business in the executive branch. Instead of working through a process to produce a consensus policy, which would generally be announced in a carefully prepared speech, the president takes pot shots at government experts on social media. Rather than leading, Trump seems more comfortable spectating and commenting. Whether this is a result of his laziness or his inability to operate the levers of power, it is pathetic.
Trump often tries to cover for his failures by asserting that he is a victim of the “deep state.” In this narrative, the problem is not Trump’s gross incompetence but sabotage by devious enemies. Many of Trump’s followers have bought this argument in theory. In practice, it involves pitting his credibility against admirable, nonpartisan public servants such as the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’s Anthony S. Fauci. And Trump does not triumph in any contest where knowledge and integrity determine the winner.
The claim that presidential character doesn’t count has also been tested and found foolish. Morality is not merely a matter of sexual ethics. It involves a determination to treat others with respect and to honor their essential dignity. This is what makes racism immoral. And this is what makes Trump’s increasingly unvarnished racism politically disqualifying. Trump’s failures of empathy and decency are the product of poor presidential character. At a time when the country is deliberating about sensitive matters of justice and equity, we have a president with a missing conscience. This is doing profound harm to the country.
The coming presidential election may offer its own surprises, but it is not a repeat of 2016. The ideological props beneath the Trump presidency have been removed, one by one. It is now clear that the country has much to lose, that governing skill is essential and that presidential decency counts. By all those measures, the Trump of 2020 is a loser.