“We are in a fight for the survival of our nation and civilization itself,” President Donald Trump said in Wisconsin Monday night. “2016. That wasn’t crazy people we were dealing with. They were on the edge. Crooked Hillary was on the edge—on the verge. She became crazy—later on.”
Like most everyone, I have watched Donald Trump the politician for five years. His gladiatorial talent in the presidential colosseum quickly became apparent. He tormented Jeb Bush, made mincemeat of Marco Rubio, overshadowed Chris Christie, dunked on Ted Cruz and, of course, deprived Hillary Clinton of further power. As once-capo Steve Bannon noted: Trump is “probably the greatest public speaker in those large arenas since William Jennings Bryan,” the liberal populist who was not able to leverage that ability to the White House (losing thrice).
But that mastery of spectacle in the arena has revealed weaknesses in other venues. Trump is just not a good prepared speaker. It’s a liability that’s been exposed by the COVID-19 crisis, most emblematically in a terrible Oval Office address at the U.S. dawn of a virus he once downplayed. The gesticulative, opera-bouffe Trump giving prepared remarks can look like a man delivering a message from a straight-jacket. It’s not his thing.
This disadvantage has compounded as the crisis has dragged on (and on).
Trump’s opponent, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, was once notoriously logorrheic. But the Biden running for president is a quieter man. However, since March, what would have been Biden’s major liabilities in a general election campaign—for instance, relatively paltry rallies (compared to Trump), as well as more consistent gaffing in a freewheeling format—have simply disappeared.
This is no doubt a maddening development for Trump who had been misled for months by Republican apparatchiks confident the former vice president was a weak candidate. He is no such thing, especially when the biggest guns in Trump’s arsenal — a full employment economy and large stadium events — are now missing in action.
Trump is now waging, and must wage, a more complex campaign than he did last time. Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton, a parody of an unpopular status quo. To win, he must convincingly make the case that Biden represents an uncritical reversion on some fronts—on say, China, as well as busybody regulation—while a menacing threat on new fronts. The pure political play for Trump is to convince voters, especially Trump-weary ones, that the true danger is a belligerent cadre underneath Biden.
In other words, Trump must convince enough voters that Biden means more lockdowns, and further racialized politics: a methed-up version of the last five months. Though he is the sitting president, it’s clear Trump disapproves of the last five months in a way that Biden doesn’t. We can’t know the future, but we know that Biden would favor ratcheted-up measures on COVID-19, even as swing voting Americans potentially tire of the restrictions. And to watch the convention this week, we know that a federal government led by Biden would have a supreme focus on the new “anti-racism.”
It has been unclear whether Trump, frankly, had the discipline or interest to run a campaign that wasn’t all about him, and instead made a multifaceted case for retention of power. It appeared, perhaps, that he’d rather replay the hits of “Crooked Hillary” with the likes of Fox’s Sean Hannity—and go out in a blaze of vainglory. It has been unclear, even though he is the president, whether he has “what it takes,” as famed campaign chronicler Richard Ben Cramer wrote of winners of the Oval.
It got a little more clear Monday. In the crucible swing state of Wisconsin, no less, Trump gave a COVID-era address (read: no enormous crowd) in a style I have never seen him try on before. Let’s call it “Trumporaneous.” Though he’s banished Clinton, it was, for him—a third way. He clearly spoke from notes, but wasn’t jailed by them.
Trump flapped his limbs toward a non-existent stadium crowd—maybe a thousand, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported—but seemed at ease. With local crowd restrictions, the president showed no visible anxiety over attendance, unlike the June debacle in Tulsa. More than anything, he seemed to have swallowed his pride, making the superior argument that Biden is a potential “trojan horse” for an off-the-rails remaking of the country. For Trump, that’s a safer bet than a national popularity contest against an elderly figure with a deeply sympathetic, middle-class story. “These are people who are seriously radical Left,” Trump said. “Joe Biden is nothing but their puppet. He has no clue.”
And there was the good humor that bedevils his opponents. Speaking of his own political following: “We’ll call it a peaceful protest, so we can do whatever we want.” On hand was Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin governor and Trump’s onetime rival who lost power in 2018. He said to Walker: “The next time you run, don’t put marijuana on the ballot. It brought out like a million people nobody knew.”
Does any of this matter? Few watched it amid media saturation over the Democratic convention. Trump may yet revert to bad political habits by this time next week, when he accepts the Republican nomination for president from the White House, or after. He has still failed to govern in a fashion worthy of his outsider promise. His most substantial domestic legacy thus far is a tax cut; on foreign policy, it is a dangerous escalation with Iran. The country is in double-digit unemployment, wars with itself, and has perhaps only now seen the apex of the pandemic. That all matters.
But there is every reason to believe that Biden has peaked. A CNN poll—which Trump referenced—has him within five points of Biden, the closest national survey in months. The NASDAQ just hit a new summit. If you squint hard enough, you can make out an aperture, deserved or not, for another stunning Trump victory. Also, one could argue a necessary condition for a person like Donald Trump ever winning a major election is now back in play: No one thinks he is going to win.
Trump has begun taking out fairly-clever ad signs around the country: “Where’s Joe?” The answer to where he should be, I think, is clear: holding on for dear life.