Swing and a miss. Photo: Michael Reynolds / EPA / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Artillery Row

Letter from Washington: The emptiness of Trump 2020

The President doesn’t know what his presidency is for

What to call Joe Biden? According to the Washington Post, that question has been on the minds of Donald Trump and his campaign team this week. Should he stick with “Sleepy Joe”or try something new? What about “Swampy Joe”, to highlight the fact that the former Vice-President has been in Washington for nearly 50 years? Or “Creepy Joe”, a reference to the Democratic candidate’s unfortunate handsiness with voters?

These name games reveal several things about the President and his bid for re-election. The first, and most obvious, is that the Trump team knows what the public polls make clear: their current approach isn’t working. Biden’s lead is in the double-digits nationally; he’s ahead in every battleground state the President won in 2016. Trump has the lowest approval rating of any president seeking re-election since Jimmy Carter, who lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Second, in its throwback to the days of “Crooked Hillary”, the nicknaming is a reminder of the many ways in which Trump and co see 2016 as the template for success. In one sense, it’s understandable: with more and more pundits counting him out, how could Trump not draw inspiration from the moment he shocked the world four years ago?

But rediscovering the magic of 2016 will prove difficult. Biden is not Clinton. He is considerably less controversial and more popular. At Trump’s comeback rally in Tulsa last month, the lack of boos and hisses when he mentioned his opponent made clear that the President has so far failed to do what he did so successfully four years ago, and that the Democratic candidate is a long way from the pantomime baddie Trump needs him to be.

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In 2016, Clinton’s villainousness was, in the eyes of many undecided voters, confirmed by the twin “October surprises”: the hack of the Clinton campaign emails and FBI chief Jim Comey’s announcement of a probe into emails on a senior Clinton aide’s laptop. Maybe Trump will get lucky twice, but, unlike Clinton, Biden has not been built up by the right for several decades as a sinister threat to American democracy.

In that sense, the former Vice-President’s weakness is his strength. And that’s why “Sleepy Joe” has flopped. After an exhausting four years in Washington, sleepiness sounds just fine to many Americans. “You must vote for me, otherwise this slightly doddering but basically benign old man will be in the Oval Office” is not a winning rallying cry.   

The remarkable thing about the Trump campaign is not that the attacks on Biden appear to be falling flat, but how little else there is to his re-election bid beyond “stop the Democrats”. Populists are supposed to lavish voters with unrealistic, oversimplified and expensive promises. Trump, bizarrely, is offering almost nothing.

Last weekend, Fox News’s Sean Hannity asked Trump what his top priorities would be for a second term — an easy question from a supportive media figure. The President gave a rambling, policy-free answer about experience. Offered a second chance to answer the question in a similarly soft interview on Wednesday, he managed something vague about bringing manufacturing back. 

On Tuesday, Tucker Carlson — as of this week the most watched cable news host in US history and arguably the most influential person in US media — excoriated the Republican Party for losing touch with the voters it depends on. “Middle-class families have no national spokesman,” he said on his Fox News programme. Instead of helping those families, Carlson said, the GOP has pursued a culture-war dead end:

The party feeds them a steady diet of mindless symbolic victories, partisan junk food designed to make them feel full even as they waste away. Who cares how many Benghazi hearings we have? We’re supposed to care. Why should we? How did Peter Strzok’s text messages become more important than saving American jobs from foreign nationals who are taking them? It is lunacy. We fall for it every time and to the extent this show has participated in it, we apologise with deepest sincerity. Because meanwhile, as we’re talking about things that don’t matter, life for the dwindling American middle class has become steadily worse. Suddenly, there are junkies living in your park. Your nephew just died of a fentanyl overdose. And saddest of all, and who hasn’t thought this, you’ve realised that your children will never be as successful as you are. The American Dream died with your generation.

Carlson is a scarily agile political communicator — hence the growing speculation about his own plans for a 2024 presidential run. His critique might have been directed to Republican politicians in general, but it was as much an appeal to the Trump campaign. As it stands, the President’s bid for re-election offers no substantive plans to improve the lives of the American people. Unless that changes, it is hard to see how he wins in November.

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Of course, Biden’s campaign is similarly negative. It is about little more than the deficiencies of the other guy, and the goal of a Biden presidency — stopping Trump — would be achieved on election day. The difference is that such an approach makes sense when you aren’t the incumbent and when 80 per cent of Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction. A plurality of Republicans agree. Just one in three independents report that they approve of the job Trump is doing.

The President is, reportedly, moping around the White House, despondent about his re-election chances after the arrival of a pandemic and the deterioration of the economy. According to Vanity Fair, he turned, as he has done before, to Carlson for advice. He pleaded: “What do I do? What do I do?”

We don’t know what Carlson told the President. But we do know what he told the country on live television, and the message is clear: Trump needs more than a catchier nickname for Joe Biden — the “partisan junk food” of Carlson’s monologue — if he wants four more years eating KFC on Air Force One.

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