With just four months to go for the presidential poll, a collapsed economy, increased racism and more deaths due to Covid-19 are likely to dent Trump’s prospects. Is he a man all at sea?
By Kenneth Tiven
We know now after more than three years of Donald Trump’s presidency that his singular talent is a life-long ability to promote himself and his brand as a symbol of excellence. The 2016 campaign may have started as a marketing and promotional effort for Trump’s varied business interests, but repeatability of success in 2020 seems less likely each day as he faces multiple catastrophic situations in America.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic changed the world, it was obvious that he did not know the difference between petulance and policy. Humanitarian concerns became entirely transactional for Trump—what’s in it for me. The pandemic upended everything. It doesn’t care what Trump or any elected leader thinks. Trump initially dismissed it as nothing more than the usual flu. Ignoring the potential severity was consistent with a man whose only metric for anything is how it affects himself. Americans and Indians have felt the impact of a growing death toll.
Around us, a halted economy caused misery and unemployment. All we could do was stay at home, considering the fate of family, friends, mankind and the planet. All Trump seemed capable of doing was contradicting scientific experts on how to solve corona issues while claiming that reopening the economy would make everyone feel better. Social media is a big aspect of changing attitudes. Stuck at home with time to think and less “noise” and air pollution, a frustrated population saw things differently. Into this environment came George Floyd, an African-American man choked to death by a Minneapolis cop ignoring the man’s plea: “I cannot breathe.” The viral video brought the ugly reality of racism home with an unequivocal impact rarely felt in America.
Despite the Black Lives Matter movement gaining diversity, force and speed, Trump insists on a law and order response from the militarised police forces, backed by the federal military. He insists he’s been the best president “blacks” have ever had, maybe even greater than Abraham Lincoln who ended legal slavery in the US.
The president still speaks of the virus in the past tense, suggesting that the economy can reopen. Yet in states which reopened earlier and with fewer restrictions, the virus has spiked. Most of these states favoured Trump in 2016, taking him at his campaign promise when he asked, “What do you have to lose with me?”
Four months from the election of 2020, the answer is obvious: more than 1,25,000 deaths and 40,000,000 people unemployed. The reality of a collapsed economy and homebound restrictions gave millions of people more time to think about the killing of George Floyd. Trump talks tough about protesters but doesn’t have much to say about racism that permeates policing in America.
An optimist would say President Trump is torn between the impulse to speak to his base and the demands of governing a multi-racial country in the throes of unprecedented turmoil and upheaval. A pessimist would say too much of the professional media still has not grasped the full malignancy of this president. For both mainstream and social media that supports Trump, this malignancy is a feature, not a bug.
A well-respected Australian journalist friend wrote to me after viewing Trump’s sparsely attended campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “I hadn’t sat through a complete performance before and it was an unmitigated disaster, narcissistic, wandering, incoherent, self-indulgent, inconsequential, pathetic, immoral and full of lies and half-truths. I guess just a typical Trump speech. For him to spend 20 minutes recounting how he shuffled down a ramp or drank a glass of water was almost a highlight. Anyway, another four months of this lunacy. Is there any hope the dreaded base is tiring of him or at least declining? In any other democracy, he’d be out on his ear by now. What is it about that base that keeps supporting him?” he wrote.
What’s unchanged is his fervent fans who root for him to be mean to “liberals” and others whom they dislike with such casual certainty that it suggests no real understanding. What has changed is a growing realisation that systemic racism is a mindset that oppresses far more than just people of colour. The diversity in age, gender and colour at peaceful protests indicates an expanding sense that the political, judicial and economic systems in the US are weighted toward the rich and white folks.
Black Lives Matter protests—most held outdoors—haven’t seemed to spread the virus much, perhaps because most participants wore masks. In Trump Country in the South and Southwest and in both red and blue states in the West, the virus is spreading quickly in part because Trump’s mask refusal has stigmatised what is a significant weapon against the Covid fight.
Political polling is a snapshot and can be wrong as we learned in 2016. Voters in the vast middle ground between the two political parties are deserting Trump, making his numbers smaller than his presumed opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. Things are not going his way in court, in public, in policy matters. The tell-all books from former staff are coming in waves and all paint a picture of a man who doesn’t know what he is doing. Whatever mystique was there is gone of his own making as he adopts a pro-Confederacy, white racist position on multiple issues. That civil war ended 155 years ago. Enough already.
Police brutality and systemic racism is now more widely understood than in the last 300 years. Instead of leading a national effort to solve economic implications and health consequences of a global pandemic, he’s exacerbated them.
On July 4, 1969, this writer celebrated American Independence in Oslo, Norway, in a park with hundreds of enthusiastic Americans and Norwegians. That sort of enthusiasm is unlikely to happen again. President Trump’s handling of immigration and the pandemic dismays Europeans, and perhaps the globe. Tourism to and from the US will take decades to recover from America’s failure to manage the coronavirus properly. Visitors to Europe will come from countries that have controlled the virus better such as New Zealand, Vietnam, Cuba and Uganda.
It is sad to write this, but Americans who oppose masks and social distancing are unlikely to be humiliated, as they never planned to travel outside the US.
—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels