Alan Zendell, August 16, 2019
Every day I hear people moan about how Trump is going to be re-elected. That defeatism is not only depressing, it’s dead wrong. While the Democrats proved in 2016 that they are uniquely capable of murdering a gift horse in its sleep, they got their act together in 2018, and rode the opportunity of disillusionment with Trump to a majority in the House of Representatives. Not only is Trump beatable in 2020, if they can avoid a circular firing squad within their own ranks, the Dems should score the sort of decisive landslide that history will record as a clear renunciation of fascist nativism and racism, and a re-affirmation of core American values.
What does Trump have going for him? As James Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid!” In Trump’s world, the economy means taxes, market indexes, and jobs. Notably, it excludes deficits, the national debt burden we are leaving to our children, and sustainable wage growth. Even among Republicans, many who still hold to basic conservative principles abhor that. They’ve been cowed by Trump’s shameless style and take-no-prisoners approach to politics, but there are signs that they are re-awakening.
Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld was the first to challenge Trump’s right to lead the party he hijacked in 2016. Then popular Republican Maryland governor Larry Hogan announced that he was considering a primary challenge, and this week, former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford said the same thing. We might even see the resurrection of Jeff Flake as the standard bearer of Barry Goldwater style conservatism.
But what is most likely to defeat Trump is his own limited world view. He’s not a long thinker. Everything he does is transactional, a series of knee-jerk actions and decisions that reflect on his basic nature and values. His continual attacks on perceived enemies and rivals, on virtually anyone who fails to convincingly take the knee, have caused most observers to compare him to an out-of-control child, from his five-year-old tantrums to his adolescent incapacity to feel compassion.
But it is another aspect of his inability to function like an adult that will ultimately defeat him: impatience. Trump’s style is to constantly pick fights, goad the opposition, and rely on chaos. That’s what a professional boxer does – keep the opponent constantly off guard, jab and poke at every perceived weakness, and create enough disorientation to strike a decisive blow. All of that can be very effective in the short term, but life, especially the life of a president isn’t a boxing match.
Trump cannot take the long view because it is the anathema of his strengths. Thus, his constant antagonism for allies, his willingness to be nice to anyone when he perceives it as momentarily advantageous, and his ongoing trade wars. None of these things is productive over the long term, and four years in office is sufficient for deep cracks to form in his power base. That’s why Trump is ultimately no match for adversaries like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jin Ping, and Kim Jong Un, or for politicians like Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. While Trump behaves like a hyper-active child, they all understand the long view.
Trump benefited from a stock market that bet on a business-friendly climate for two years. It rose on speculation, then plateaued waiting for his next move. But the erosion of relationships with our natural allies and his ongoing trade wars made his billionaire friends nervous which is reflected in worsening market volatility and in the dreaded inverted yield curve, both of which are established harbingers of an economy ready to crash.
(If you don’t understand the inverted yield curve thing, consider what every seven-year-old who opens a bank account knows. He can earn a paltry return in an account with no minimum time limit, or if he’s willing to let the bank keep his money for several years, he can earn much more. But what if confidence in the future is so bad that no one’s willing to guarantee a long-term return? The result is chaos, and not the kind Trump likes to create.)
Trump uses tariffs the way a professional fighter jabs. But his principle adversary, China, is known for taking the long view. Mandarin philosophy has always prioritized the thousand year view over quick outcomes. China’s leaders know they can outwait him, and they’re more than willing to suffer short-term pain for ultimate victory. As Trump’s base erodes and polls show him sliding, China has no incentive to sign a long-term trade agreement on Trump’s terms. They understand that the misguided trade war he started is what will defeat him as Americans feel the impact over the coming months.
We’ve had enough defeatism. This fight is winnable if we stay focused.