A Texan friend of mine offered an insightful observation of the 45th US President, Donald J. Trump. At a conference in Washington, he leaned over and said with a grin: “Bear in mind that this is a president who has not majored in history.” But there is one historical precedent that may be exercising Trump’s mind at the moment.
Few in Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House, perhaps with the exception of wife Lady Bird, knew what he was going to tell the American people during his televised address on the evening of March 31, 1968. With the Vietnam War still raging and his Great Society crumbling, LBJ surprised the nation by announcing that he would not recontest that November’s presidential election.
In words that still resonate, he told Americans: “With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office — the presidency of your country. Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
Recently, no less a seasoned campaigner than Democrat James Carville, who helped drive Bill Clinton’s campaign successfully into the White House in 1992, has suggested that Trump may not run again. It would be easy to dismiss this notion if there weren’t signs the President was doing the groundwork to enable him to exercise this option. It would be an extraordinary determination for Trump to quit the presidential race, but by any criteria devised and employed these are indeed extraordinary times.
For Trump, the idea that he could be beaten by a man campaigning from his basement in Wilmington, Delaware, is intolerable. Bear in mind that Trump has dismissed former senator Joe Biden as having occupied a trash can from which Barack Obama rescued him with a vice-presidential nomination in 2008. The Trump psychology simply cannot accept any defeat or any acknowledgement of failure.
This is the real factor that has bedevilled the Trump administration’s failings during the COVID-19 crisis. By the evidence of everyone’s eyes, Trump got it wrong, minimising the virus by way of its dangers and its impact. This has caused spiralling infection and death rates across the US. The confused and confusing American response, often contradictory, at local, state and federal levels has meant that the economy has cratered and presidential poll numbers have collapsed.
A glance at the polls for the past three months is instructive. Biden has maintained a consistent lead, sometimes stretching to double digits, which is far greater than the lead Hillary Clinton had mustered before the 2016 election. Indeed, at times Biden’s lead has been greater than Obama’s poll leads in 2008 and 2012, although the margin, routinely, should close. However, the Democrats appear to be competitive in the hitherto red state of Texas, as well as Georgia and Arizona.
If these figures for Biden v Trump continue after American Labor Day on September 7, then the White House incumbent is in desperate trouble and he knows it. Americans begin voting in a few short weeks. Time is running out for the Trump campaign.
This is why we have seen the absurd pantomime of Trump endeavouring to delay the election beyond November 3. This would set aside a US law that dates from 1845 and it is predictable that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who hold the power to change the date, have rejected this.
The President has shifted to campaigning hard against voting by mail, with the Republican Party even challenging the decision of the state of Nevada to mail ballots to all registered voters.
There is very little evidence of mail fraud or foreign interference in US postal voting to date. Both parties have campaigned successfully through the postal system at various times. But Trump fears that the Democrats will be better organised.
Trump’s primary campaign weapon of mass rallies is now denied him (remember Tulsa?), and apparently a private endorsement by his party, in his view, should be scheduled for the White House. Or perhaps at Gettysburg.
The claim that the election is weighted too heavily against Trump can easily be made (by Trump). After all, didn’t Trump claim that between three million and five million illegal aliens had voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 to deny the Republican candidate an overall majority? And didn’t the “stable genius” maintain that the crowd at his inauguration was greater than that at the inauguration of Obama? All our eyes must have deceived us but, then again, we are dealing with the person who boasts of being No 1 on Facebook, while Twitter removes misinformation on COVID-19 from the presidential account.
Perceived through the prism of Trump’s personal interest, “the deep state” or the “Washington swamp” or Black Lives Matters or the Democrats/the media/Nancy Pelosi have taken an unprincipled lock on the election and denied him the possibility of winning. In this setting, absent Trump, Biden wins, but the 45th President can say to his base that he would have won in a fair contest. If he does run and loses, then he has all these excuses on the mantelpiece like so many Russian dolls.
No one should underestimate Trump for his capacity to reset the agenda and rebuild his political appeal. His deliberations may yet see self-interest align with his candidacy. Buttressed by the chimaera of a new vaccine, he still could win. But the scenario above is intriguing.