Alan Zendell, October 14, 2020
I can’t help but wonder what’s going on in Trump’s head these days. His rants and actions appear true to form: brash, offensive, divisive, his own unique blend of truth, lies, and hyperbole. None of that should surprise anyone who paid attention for the last five years. But considering what is at stake, I can’t make sense of his stretch run strategy.
He made it clear in 2016 that he disdained traditional campaigns and had no respect for professionals who’d been managing political candidates for decades. He claimed that his instincts served him better than all their collective advice. Since he won, the easy conclusion is that he was right. But many of the factors that turned the election his way had nothing to do with strategy.
Would James Carville or David Axelrod have consorted with Julian Assange? Would Karl Rove have violated federal law by soliciting support from a foreign adversarial government? Were the actions of then FBI Director James Comey or Hillary Clinton’s inexplicable mishandling of Benghazi and her infamous emails examples of Trump’s brilliance? What I saw was ineptitude on the part of Clinton’s campaign advisors.
What Trump calls his native, instinctive talent is a combination of being driven by his narcissistic need for adulation and a carefully schooled approach to business learned from sleazy mentors like his father, his long-time lawyer Roy Cohn, and the mobsters he palled around with in the 1970s and 1980s. That they often served him well in his real estate ventures, however, may reflect more about the intimidation value of well-paid lawyers and a loophole-filled legal system than business acumen.
We now have considerable evidence of that. His well-publicized bankruptcies made him a bad loan risk in the opinion of every major American bank. His niece and sister, and former fixer Michael Cohen all describe him as a con man. And the New York Times’ revealed that Trump has $400 million in personal debts, and his flagship hotels and golf courses are all financial disasters.
If we consider the final twenty days of this election in light of everything we know about Trump, his actions make no sense. Real Clear Politics and 538.com report that the most highly regarded polls currently have Biden leading Trump by ten points among likely voters, and ahead in almost every battleground state. No incumbent with numbers as bad as Trump’s has ever won re-election.
Trump still has a loyal, some would say rabid base, but that base is no more than a third of the electorate, not nearly enough to re-elect him. His margin of victory in 2016 came from independents who were angry at establishment politicians and disaffected Democrats who disliked Clinton. The 2018 mid-terms showed that Trump was losing his grip on those groups, and his mishandling of the pandemic caused independents to leave him in droves. In Biden, he faces an opponent who has a consistently high approval rating with voters, well in excess of 50%, while Clinton’s never approached 50%.
Assuming his attempts to undermine the electoral process don’t succeed, Trump’s best chance of winning re-election requires getting voters’ minds off the COVID crisis and expanding his base. Yet, he seems hell-bent on doing neither. He announced that he will hold rallies like the ones this week in Sanford, FL and Johnstown, PA every day until the election. And rather than engage Biden in another debate, he will hold his own competing Town Hall tomorrow evening while Biden goes ahead with the one already scheduled.
Every public health expert has warned that raucous rallies with almost no one wearing masks and people jammed together for hours with no distancing are all likely to be COVID super-spreaders. Only Trump’s most devoted supporters attend them, they are smaller than in 2016, and they don’t receive the endless television coverage this year. The rallies, which are the heart of his stretch run strategy keep the virus front and center and are generally ignored by the very people he needs to win over.
What’s he up to? Is he expecting an October surprise? U. S. Attorney John Durham, who was tasked by Attorney General Bill Barr with re-investigating the Russia investigation and Hunter Biden was supposed to be preparing a blockbuster report. But Durham announced that there would be no report before the election and has turned his attention to the Clinton Foundation. Does Trump think he’s still running against Hillary or has his well-known reputation for spite overcome him?
The only explanation I can come up with is that Trump is deliberately trying to create COVID hotspots throughout the battleground states so he can declare a state of emergency and cancel the election. Far-fetched, I know, but if you have a better explanation, I’d love to hear it.