“If I lose, I will have lost to the worst candidate, the worst candidate in the history of presidential politics,” Trump said at an Oct. 17 campaign rally in Janesville, Wis. “If I lose, what do I do? I’d rather run against somebody who’s extraordinarily talented, at least, this way I can go and lead my life.”
The president, who said at the same rally that “we’re not going to lose, we’re going to win,” has certainly not abandoned his showman’s approach to the campaign trail. But his unscripted remarks bemoaning a potential loss — and preemptively explaining why he might suffer one — offer a window into his mind-set as he barnstorms the country in an attempt to keep himself from becoming the one thing he so derisively despises: a loser.
Trump has told rallygoers he had the presidential race won until the pandemic hit, and he has accused media outlets of focusing on the ongoing health crisis to hurt him politically.
“Covid, Covid, Covid is the unified chant of the Fake News Lamestream Media,” he tweeted Wednesday. “They will talk about nothing else until November 4th., when the Election will be (hopefully!) over. Then the talk will be how low the death rate is, plenty of hospital rooms, & many tests of young people.”
Trump has previously complained that Biden could win the race and then receive the benefit of glowing media coverage for overseeing the implementation of Trump administration policies on the coronavirus and other issues.
The president’s comments reflect his long-running failure to shift the nation’s focus from the rapidly worsening pandemic in recent months. As he has tried to build his campaign on other themes — including cracking down on racial-justice protests, making unsubstantiated corruption allegations against Biden and attacking the former vice president over energy policy — the coronavirus has continued to dominate American lives and news headlines.
His critics say Trump’s own inconsistent handling of the pandemic is one of the main reasons it has remained a key issue in the campaign for several months. With Election Day approaching, the virus is surging across the country, with record cases in recent days and growing hospitalizations and deaths. More than 227,000 Americans have died.
Trump’s own hospitalization earlier this month after he was infected not only took him off the campaign trail for several days but also led more Americans to believe he was not taking the deadly virus seriously enough, polls show.
Despite spending four days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Trump quickly returned to the campaign trail and continued holding the kind of mass gatherings that his own health officials have described as “superspreader” events. He has also attacked scientists and journalists for focusing on the deadly virus.
Trump has falsely called media reporting on the pandemic an effort “to change our great early election numbers” and said it “should be an election-law violation.”
The rallies have themselves become a symbol of his “reckless” approach to governing, said Guy Cecil, who leads Priorities USA, a liberal group that has blanketed the airwaves with advertisements against Trump on the pandemic.
“He’s making people less favorable and less open to voting for him,” Cecil said Wednesday. “He is actually hurting himself by traveling around the country holding these rallies.”
Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh attacked public polls showing Trump behind Biden and predicted victory.
“The mainstream media has spent the last four years trying to destroy and defeat President Trump, so no one should put any stock in polls paid for by these same news organizations,” Murtaugh said in a statement Wednesday. “We know where he stands in the states that will decide this election and we are confident in his reelection.”
Biden, who has eschewed large rallies for smaller events, has sought to contrast his approach to the pandemic with Trump’s.
During a speech Wednesday in Wilmington, Del., Biden referenced a Trump rally in Omaha at which thousands of supporters were left stranded waiting for buses in near-freezing weather. He called it “an image that captures President Trump’s whole approach to this crisis.”
“He gets his photo op, and then he gets out,” Biden said. “He leaves everyone else to suffer the consequences of his failure to make a responsible plan. It seems like he just doesn’t care much about it. And the longer he’s in charge, the more reckless he gets.”
Trump has talked about the virus as something that has upended his own political fortunes, while downplaying its impact on the country. At packed rallies in which few people wear masks, he has repeatedly claimed the United States was “rounding the turn” on the pandemic — despite evidence to the contrary.
At his rallies, the president speaks more about the political ramifications of the pandemic than about its devastating impact on millions of Americans.
“You know, until the plague came in from China, I didn’t even have a race,” he said Tuesday at a rally in West Salem, Wis., describing the election as a choice between a “Trump boom and a Biden lockdown.”
But parts of Wisconsin are already facing the prospect of shutting down as the virus circulates at record levels. On the day of Trump’s visit, Wisconsin recorded 71 covid-19 deaths, the most of any day since the beginning of the pandemic. The following day, the University of Wisconsin announced it was canceling football-related activities for at least seven days because of an outbreak among students.
Trump’s approach may end up hurting him politically in a key state, said David Wasserman, the House editor for the Cook Political Report.
“The president’s decision to downplay the severity of COVID at multiple late October rallies in Wisconsin might be the biggest display of tone-deafness I’ve ever seen, and I cover hundreds of campaigns a cycle,” Wasserman wrote Tuesday on Twitter.
Even as he has complained about unfair treatment, Trump has told supporters that he is in strong position to win reelection. The boasts have doubled as a reassurance to his political base and a basis for explaining away a potential loss.
As he has repeatedly brought up losing in recent days, he has said that only external forces could cause such an outcome. With record numbers of Americans voting early and by mail, he has seized on absentee ballots as one explanation for a potential loss.
“Who’s sending them? Who’s receiving them? Who’s bringing them back? Who’s signing them? It’s ridiculous,” Trump said at a rally Monday in Allentown, Pa. “It’s the only way we can lose, in my opinion, is massive fraud. And that’s what’s happening because all over the country you’re seeing it. Thousands and thousands of ballots.”
There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, and several Republicans have openly said Trump could lose fairly — with some almost predicting that he will.
During an Oct. 15 committee hearing, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said Democrats “have a good chance of winning the White House.” In leaked comments from a phone call with constituents, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) warned of a “Republican bloodbath” in November and specifically attacked Trump on a number of issues. Speaking to CNBC on Oct. 9, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said the GOP could be in for “a bloodbath of Watergate proportions” in which they lose the White House and the Senate.
Public polling backs up the concerns of those Republican senators. Trump trails Biden nationally by a wide margin, and his deficit in several swing states remains significant.
Still, Trump has told reporters that a “red wave” is soon coming that would sweep him into another unexpected victory.
But that hasn’t stopped him from considering the alternative — sometimes quite publicly.
“And maybe I’ll lose because they’ll say I’m not a nice person,” Trump told conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh on Oct. 9. “I think I am a nice person. I help people. I like to help people.”
During the rally in Allentown, Trump looked over at a truck and mused about hopping in and leaving his presidential life behind
“I’d love to do it. Just drive the hell out of here,” he said. “Just get the hell out of this. I had such a good life. My life was great.”
Trump has said his references to losing and leaving the White House are made sarcastically. But they also reveal his insecurities about potentially going down in history as a one-term president, said Amanda Carpenter, a former aide to Cruz and a Trump critic who wrote a book titled “Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies To Us.”
“He always tells you what he’s thinking, right?” she said. “To him, it is embarrassing if you lose this to Biden in particular because Biden stands for things like empathy, experience and patience — which in Trump’s world are considered defects.”
Trump, who has openly mocked Biden’s mental acuity and political skills, has said losing to him would be especially devastating.
“Could you imagine if I lose? My whole life, what am I going to do?” the president told supporters earlier this month in Macon, Ga. “I’m going to say I lost to the worst candidate in the history of politics. I’m not going to feel so good. Maybe I’ll have to leave the country. I don’t know.”