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Larry Donnelly: Covid and BLM may have him down, but Trump may not yet be out

Larry Donnelly says Trump’s recent Fox News interview was a disaster and reflects his drop in the polls, but watch for the shift in his rhetoric from now on.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

IT WAS NOTHING short of extraordinary. This is the only word that suffices to describe last weekend’s interview of President Donald Trump by the veteran Fox News journalist, Chris Wallace.

While not fully apparent to the audience, the fact that it was conducted outdoors in searing July heat and humidity in Washington, DC – those who have been to the capital of the United States in mid-summer can attest to how horribly uncomfortable it is – only added fuel to the fire.

Wallace was tough and tenacious. He pushed the president hard. Trump was rambling and incoherent at times. He mentioned “beautiful world wars” and relied on bad statistics in an effort to defend his administration’s handling of Covid-19.

A one-term president?

That said, he was “on message” in some of his answers and his base surely cheered their man on at points. Anecdotally, yet tellingly, when I texted Trump-supporting friends back in Boston with my own negative take on how it had gone and my renewed doubts as to the president’s fitness for the office, there was no firm rebuttal. Instead, it was a “look at the other guy – he’s even worse” retort.

Covid-19 has severely harmed President Trump’s chances of a second term. In the wake of literally all over the shop communications, as well as often trying to wish the pandemic away, his standing in the polls has plummeted, most significantly with older voters.

Moreover, the murder of George Floyd has engendered an unprecedented national reckoning with America’s biggest demon that cuts across racial, socio-economic and geographic lines.

At this stage, their impact on November’s election is beyond the New York billionaire’s control. If Covid-19 continues to worsen and the economic situation of the people deteriorates further as a result, his goose is probably cooked, no matter what.

In a similar vein, if Black Lives Matter demonstrations translate into a massive turnout at the polls of voters of colour and young people, the president is finished.

Not out, yet

On the other hand, if the rates of infection do slow again in the coming months and the economy charges back quickly (as some experts suggest it might), Trump will be credited by many.

Additionally, in the event that Joe Biden does not inspire a good number of African Americans either to post a vote or to travel to tick a box next to his name, their activism on the streets may be drowned out by a “silent majority” who think that their demands are unwarranted and that defunding the police is a crazy idea.

There are certainly men and women of this ilk who will do their protesting in the privacy of the ballot box. Whispers about a “secret Trump” vote in pivotal states like Pennsylvania abound.

At this juncture, though, Biden is in pole position, with some pundits claiming that he could prevail by a landslide and that Democrats may regain control of the US Senate when the counting is done.

Can the incumbent claw his way back in the race? Or, framed differently, what can he actually do to mount a comeback in the present moment of historic public health and societal crises?

Donning a ruthless right-wing political operator’s hat – heaven forbid! – I would tell President Trump to proceed as follows:

1. Double down on “America First” rhetoric. The widely loathed Steve Bannon nonetheless captured the sentiment of millions of Americans in 2016 when he drove the Trump campaign’s messaging that this atypical Republican’s presidency would put the US and its people first.

No more unnecessary foreign wars that needlessly put lives at risk and invariably prove counterproductive. No more trade pacts that erode the country’s manufacturing base and export well-paid jobs overseas.

Joe Biden’s new “Buy American” initiative signals that the Democrat, who once endorsed the North American Free Trade Agreement, recognises that he has a problem on this front.

Trump can say with some justification that he has not instigated any conflict and has sought to bring jobs back to the US. The president should also focus on the threat posed by China, especially in these frightening days, and posit that he has been less timid than his predecessors in his posturing toward the Chinese during his tenure in the Oval Office. Fear is a powerful emotion in politics; Trump has shown that he can exploit it.

2. Paint Democrats as extreme on social issues. Joe Biden was arguably selected as the Democratic nominee because he was deemed most electable. He has a long voting record in the Senate, and asserted in the 1970s that he was “quite conservative” on “abortion, amnesty and acid.”

His old stance is in common with the elements of the electorate in Middle America who usually determine the outcome of presidential elections. Trump should seek to make Biden own, among other things, defences of very late-term abortion and efforts to severely restrict gun ownership emanating recently from within his own party.

Unlike most western democracies, an awful lot of Americans vote primarily on these types of issues, including many Latinos.

3. Appeal to well-off suburban professionals, particularly women. Much has been made of the drift of this formerly GOP-leaning demographic to the Democratic Party. Trump’s behaviour and persona have accelerated it.

His mantra to them has to be: “You might not like me, but you gotta vote for me.” He must make the case that his opponents – if they take the presidency and both houses of Congress – would tax the upper middle class into oblivion, raid their savings and retirement schemes and wreck the private health care plans that give them speedy access to the best doctors and hospitals. Trump desperately needs to hold onto as many of them as possible. It won’t be easy.

4. Hit Biden hard, but not too hard. President Trump is going to hammer Joe Biden on his rather embarrassing and worrying verbal gaffes and the doubts they provoke for many about the 77-year-old’s capacity to do the job.

He will repeatedly raise the ex-vice president’s son’s dealings in Ukraine and consequent, quite legitimate ethical questions. There is a reason why political candidates engage in negative campaigning, even as the media chides them for doing so: it works.

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Boundaries – not his strong suit

But Trump must be careful not to cross a line that most Americans have about what is fair game and what is not. If and when he does go too far, it could backfire spectacularly and engender sympathy for a senior statesman who is broadly liked and respected.

I expect that these four tacks will feature in Team Trump’s overarching strategy. They are pretty straightforward. The difficulty for those attempting to run the show behind the scenes, as ever, will lie in how this strategy will be executed by the man himself. As is now abundantly clear, the execution will be unpredictable. It will range from highly effective to disastrous.

Regardless, and leaving aside the two major variables of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, as well as Joe Biden’s strengths and weaknesses, my suspicion is that the politically key Americans – those in the murky middle, who neither love nor despise Donald Trump, who may or may not have taken a chance on the reality television star in 2016 – will decide that they have seen all they want to see of him.

God, I hope so. Enough is enough.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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