Donald Trump’s electoral college victory in the 2016 presidential race changed the way we talk about politics in at least two fundamental ways. The first is demonstrated by recent events in which the president retweeted a conspiracy theory and then defended himself by claiming that the person spreading it was a “respected conservative pundit.”
Trump argues his retweet of a @w_terrence tweet suggesting the Clintons murdered Jeffrey Epstein "was fine" because Williams is "a highly respected conservative pundit. A big Trump fan. And that was a retweet … he's a man who has half a million followers." pic.twitter.com/7fCwb59T3L
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 13, 2019
In the past, most of us would have found people like that conspiracy theorist to be laughable. But now we are forced to take them seriously because the man who occupies the Oval Office does. In that video clip, Trump goes on to talk about how the attorney general is investigating the matter. As we’ve all seen, Bill Barr is no stranger to conspiracy theories, so things like this are no longer a laughing matter.
The other way that Trump’s election changed our political discourse is that, prior to November 2016, most of us assumed that he would never win, including yours truly. The fact that he did was a shock to our system and caused us to rethink our assumptions. That is as it should be with people who are open-minded to reality.
But putting all of that aside for a moment, I can’t think of an example in my lifetime where a sitting president went into re-election in worse shape than Donald Trump. Back in June, I noted that, based on polling from Morning Consult, the president’s approval rating was dropping in red states. Recently, the polling firm Civiqs published data on his approval rating by state and found results for Trump that are even worse. Matt Rogers demonstrated what their findings would mean in the electoral college.
Commenting on that poll, Ed Kilgore wrote that “Trump’s state-by-state approval ratings should scare the MAGA out of him.” He suggests that Trump’s best hope for re-election is “some diabolical ability to thread the needle despite every contrary indicator.” He concludes by pointing out that “even those who succeed by selling their souls to the devil don’t have the collateral to pull that off twice.”
I don’t think it is wise to make many predictions about an election that is still more than a year away. So rather than making assumptions about what these poll numbers mean for November 2020, we can think about what they tell us about the next fifteen months.
First of all, as I pointed out above, Trump has tremendous positional power based on the office he holds. But we should never mistake that for personal power. Dave Roberts did a great job of breaking down what that means.
I really hate the discourse about “who can take on Trump,” like he’s some big, scary monster. He is a sad, flailing fraud, a serial failure enabled by crooks & plutocrats. Mock him. Pity him. But don’t “take him on” by trading insults, it grants him too much credit.
People take Trump seriously because other people take him seriously, like a dystopic version of the Peter Sellers movie Being There. His opponent should ride the emperor-has-no-clothes theme relentlessly. It’s what most terrifies Trump — that people will regard him as a fake…
Point is, Trump is not some intimidating tough guy. He’s soft as cotton candy, a coward, an emotional & intellectual toddler who’s been protected from his serial failures by a rigged system…
Debating a toddler doesn’t require courage so much as patience & focus. The toddler will scream & throw his own feces around. But every childcare worker or parent knows the worst thing you can do is engage a toddler on his own level. “No YOU’RE the poopy-head!” The way to expose Trump as an overgrown manbaby is to treat him like one.
Trump isn’t merely an overgrown toddler, he’s also terribly unpopular with most Americans. As we’ve seen, he’s bleeding support all over the country, including among lifelong Republicans in Texas. It is also important to keep in mind that it isn’t just that so many Americans disapprove of Trump. As Jeet Heer suggested, “what is more striking is the measure of intensity, which shows that those who dislike Trump do so with a passion.” Doing as Roberts suggests would send a “we hear you” message to all of those people who find Trump’s behavior deplorable.
The other thing we should keep in mind based on Trump’s unpopularity is what we’ve learned over the past few years about how he deals with losing. The best explanation of that came from Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter of Art of the Deal.
To survive, I concluded from our conversations, Trump felt compelled to go to war with the world. It was a binary, zero-sum choice for him: You either dominated or you submitted. You either created and exploited fear, or you succumbed to it…Trump grew up fighting for his life and taking no prisoners. In countless conversations, he made clear to me that he treated every encounter as a contest he had to win, because the only other option from his perspective was to lose, and that was the equivalent of obliteration.
We should know by now that there is no bottom to the depths Trump will go in a battle like this. To lose means obliteration, so he’ll pull out every ugly trick he can concoct. Given his positional power, that could be dangerous, so buckle up for a very bumpy ride with an overgrown toddler, who also happens to occupy the Oval Office.