Trump Needs More than ‘Meme Magic’ To Win
Times have changed dramatically since 2016, and the mood of the country is very different
When the doomed impeachment of President Trump proceeded towards its anticlimax in February, many Republicans, in the midst of a strong economy, were optimistic about him being returned to the White House. A good thing too, since over the previous two years the Republican Party had taken stock of what happened in 2016 and decided, of all the things President Trump did and said, what they really thought they should adopt was his personality. He fights, they said, but what he might be fighting was left pretty vague. By now it has become clear that any hope of the party taking his election as a sign that they might actually have to give something to the downscale voters flocking into the party is a lesson that will take another election to reinforce.
The impeachment proceedings against Trump began as news broke of the first COVID-19 cases in China, and we were told it was racist to be worried at the time. Trump was acquitted by the Senate about two weeks after the virus began to arrive on American shores, putting a damper on any effort to capitalize on the failure of the only impeachment in American history rooted in foreign policy disagreements. “Time is running out on Donald Trump,” read one Batman fan-fiction by the Krassenstein brothers. Wait, no…it was an early August news lede in Politico, a publication started with funds from the scion of a banking dynasty that moved more foreign money through Washington than probably anyone else.
They might be right, but how any patriotic American cannot hope for the disappointment of these people is beyond me. The late lamented M. Stanton Evans used to joke that he never much cared for Nixon until Watergate, the first time the deep state realized it could remove presidents. In a similar way, despite a long list of disappointments from this administration, it’s more obvious to me than it was in 2016 that to effect any sort of sea change in foreign policy or government, he’ll need four more years.
There are reasons to think the Trump administration is learning its lesson after hiring far too many ideological enemies and party functionaries. Many of these people pushed against the president’s desire to withdraw from Afghanistan, but it’s looking more likely that Trump is going to get his way in that country, which is not a small achievement. However, the fact that the deep state is seemingly able to conjure up a scandal to order lasting several weeks—like the highly dubious Russian bounties for Taliban members who kill U.S. soldiers—means the administration should take more seriously the problem of civil servants who do not see themselves as accountable to the American people’s elected leaders.
As with four years ago, there is plenty of demoralization propaganda afoot, and given how badly that outcome was predicted, with nobody having learned anything since, it does not seem absurd to think the consensus might have things wrong again. But a significant and troubling difference seems to be that a lot of campaign people believe the propaganda this time. COVID-19 has accelerated economic trends favorable to Trump, having decimated small business while woke tech billionaires get even richer. There are now millions more members of Trump’s most reliable voting demographic: downwardly mobile white voters. All this means that maybe there is some logic to campaign manager Bill Stepien’s base-centric strategy; as Stepien told Bloomberg on August 6, “These are voters that [sic] always need to be looked after, cared for and paid attention to, because if you lose focus on them, if you take for granted key parts of the electorate like that, there’s a chance that they stay at home or vote a different way.”
There are good reasons to think that the story we’re hearing right now—Batman is closing in on the Joker’s lair—might be missing some things. Pennsylvania new voter registrations have added 150,000 more Republicans than Democrats, and Latino voter registrations have also benefited Trump more than Biden, according to NBC. And one pollster we spoke with on the “TAC Right Now” podcast believes that the “shy Trump voter” effect is even stronger today than it was in 2016.
Despite the pandemic and economic contraction, recent events have proven that 2016 is still very much with us. As this column goes to press the National Counterintelligence and Security Center Office has put out an advisory that, while China and Iran would prefer a Biden administration, Russia is still backing Trump.
Neither Trump nor the Democrats had even pondered the question of how one might campaign during a pandemic, but now they’re having to figure it out. The conventional wisdom is that an economic catastrophe is bad for the incumbent president, a problem compounded by Trump having to pare back his popular rallies. But there are reasons to be skeptical of this theory: polls show voters don’t really blame Trump for the pandemic, and Democratic governors are giving voters an experience of what a Biden lockdown might look like, good and hard.
To that you might add that Biden’s case to voters, resting on the virtues of a steady hand and pitched to suburban moderates who just want the madness to end, is undermined, first of all by his limited forays out of his basement, and also his diminished verbal and possibly mental acuity. Will he make it to 83 before taking leave of his senses? Are the odds better or worse than a game of Russian roulette?
The Trump campaign has wisely, after a few fits and starts, started playing on the uncertainty that Biden might not be a wild-eyed radical, but he’s not in a condition to resist much of anything at the moment. One Trump rapid response person tweeted that Biden “has entirely embraced the policies of the radical left. He signed onto the Bernie-Biden Unity Communist Manifesto Platform, and vetted Communist Karen Bass for VP.” This is certainly more effective than tweeting decades-old pictures of Biden’s young son in a Redskins hat, a line of attack that was being road-tested by GOP communications people.
If ever there was an election unsuited to meme magic, it’s this one. The image of a man in a MAGA hat exuberantly giving a photojournalist the double birds during Trump’s election night event in 2016 is, alas, not exactly the color our national mood ring is showing right now. If Trump is thrown out of office by voters in November, it will be because Republicans mistook being a fighter for being as important as what you’re seen as fighting for, a message both the White House and Republican congressional caucus have allowed to become muddied since he took office.
All the same, I’ll confess that, after an unprecedented criminal investigation of a political opponent by the Obama White House, after every fundraising socialite from Great Falls to Silver Spring spent the last three years in a Cold War spy novel of their own invention, and after turning on The New York Times podcasts to hear columnists talk about how it’s every patriotic American’s duty to do zim or zer’s utmost to destroy this mad brute—after all this, if the American people simply said, “No, I’m afraid we don’t believe you this time either,” that would be cheering to me. It would almost be enough to restore one’s faith in the country.
Arthur Bloom is managing editor of The American Conservative.