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Larry Donnelly: Has America finally had enough of Trump?

Trump was on track to take a second term, but Covid-19 has changed everything, writes Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

IT MAY HAVE been merely a few calendar months ago, but late January seems like another lifetime. In those heady pre-coronavirus days, President Donald Trump appeared to be riding high and was assumed by many in the political know to be on track for re-election in November.

The economic indicators were solid; polls in the key states were encouraging, and a self-proclaimed democratic socialist who was arguably too far to the left of the American mainstream was surging as the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary rapidly approached.

‘Events, dear boy’

An overly glib “Trump’s getting four more years” sentiment permeated the air.  Those who espoused it ignored the sage maxim: “events, dear boy, events.” For along came a global life and death crisis, the likes of which has not been seen for a century.  And the current administration has not managed it well.

oh-president-trump-keep-america-great-rally-in-cincinnati A supporter chants four more years at Trump's Keep America Great campaign rally last year. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

In truth, it was playing catch-up from the very beginning because of cuts in staff and funding for the centres for disease control and prevention. Even after the gravity of the situation became clear, Trump sought to minimise it, positing that Covid-19 was no worse than the flu and would swiftly pass.

Then, when he finally accepted that it was something vastly more serious, Trump began daily press briefings.  To put it bluntly, in his conduct of them, he has embarrassed himself and diminished the office he holds. 

Trump routinely contradicts medical experts desperately trying to right the ship against a tide of willful ignorance, ridicules journalists for posing perfectly legitimate questions, makes blatantly false statements and brags incessantly on Twitter about the extraordinary television ratings every night.  There has always been a large audience for car crashes.

members-of-the-coronavirus-task-force-hold-press-briefing Trump's Covid-19 briefings have been a car crash. Source: Tasos Katopodis

A broad swathe of the United States, together with most of the rest of the world, looks on in horror.  Irish people frequently vent their exasperation to me with the leader of a country they cherish their close ties to and admire. Or at least they used to. If I had to encapsulate their messages in one phrase, it would be “where did it all go wrong?”

On the slide

Recent opinion surveys suggest that some heretofore sympathetic Americans are also souring on the New York billionaire. The poll aggregator Real Clear Politics has the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, up by 2.7% in Wisconsin, up by 3.2% in Florida and by a significant 6.5% in the crucial battleground of Pennsylvania.  If these figures hold, Biden will beat Trump, comprehensively.

Moreover, in an especially worrying trend, the president’s approval among older voters, the most reliable segment of the electorate, has fallen precipitously.  Morning Consult polling shows that he has dropped 19 percentage points with men and women over age 65 between March and April.  They badly want and need reassurance from the commander-in-chief.  They have received the exact opposite.

Donald Trump is in trouble. It is palpable. Democrats are wondering if the American people have, at last, had enough and want to put an end to what they passionately believe has been a nightmarish presidency. Will their wish come true?

Well, those writing his political obituary in May are as premature as those who said he was a shoo-in for a second term at the outset of 2020. His base remains loyal and the wholesale failure of “never Trump” Republicans to change conservative hearts and minds demonstrates the extent to which the movement they once held sway over is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Trump Inc.

Roughly 40% of the American people will cast ballots for the president, come hell or high water. And of course, incumbency confers tangible and intangible advantages.

joe-biden-interviewed-on-politics-nation Until recently, it was felt that Trump would wipe Biden out, but Covid-19 has changed everything. Source: Brian Cahn

But an equally sizable portion of the population loathes him. And – please forgive the pun – his Trump card, a booming economy, is in free fall with uncertainty and pessimism about the future rampant. He can only pray both that the worst-case scenario projections about the trajectory of the coronavirus do not come to pass and that there is a boomerang-like financial recovery. These eventualities lie beyond his control.

At the same time, the America First theme that helped propel him into the White House may be more potent in this frightening period. Rhetoric, for instance, about bringing “big pharma” and thousands of jobs back home from Ireland and elsewhere will resonate with people across the ideological spectrum, particularly in must-win states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Blaming China repeatedly probably works as well. Fear is prevalent, and Trump has proved a master at manipulating it.

‘Known unknowns’

That said, the polls reveal that many still-persuadable Americans find tremendous fault with the administration’s handling of an unfolding and profound human tragedy, rightly or wrongly. It is telling in many respects that Trump has enjoyed almost no bounce, while his counterparts around the world have been relatively lionised.

The outstanding question against this complex backdrop is whether the persuadables will rally around Joe Biden. Concerns persist behind closed doors in Democratic circles. Can Joe go toe to toe with Trump in debates and on the campaign trail? The former vice-president will have to lean heavily on surrogates; Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders will be important players.

In short, nearly everything is a known unknown at this stage of a race in the midst of a pandemic. Even the mechanics of voting are up in the air at this juncture. When asked about Trump’s re-election chances, my stock answer had been that it was a 50-50 proposition. 

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Today, I am moving that to 60-40 in favour of Biden.  There is a long way to go, however. Caution is appropriate.       

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

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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