By David Smith in Washington
The president has had a difficult period and is trailing his rival by double digits. But he has time to fight back – and fight dirty
It was the death of a salesman. With tie undone and crumpled “Make America great again” cap in hand, Donald Trump cut a forlorn figure shambling across the White House south lawn on his return from his failed comeback rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Some observers likened him to Willy Loman, the tragic protagonist of Arthur Miller’s benchmark drama.
The US president, critics say, has spent years selling a bill of goods to the American people. Now they are no longer buying.
The thinly attended rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last weekend was the physical manifestation of what poll after poll is showing: Trump is trailing his Democratic rival Joe Biden by double digits and seemingly on course for a historic defeat in November’s presidential election.
But seasoned commentators warn against complacency. Trump still has time to fight back – and fight dirty.
“You look at the polls and think ‘he can’t win’,” tweeted Bill Kristol, who served in two Republican administrations. “But Trump’s path to victory doesn’t depend on persuading Americans. It depends on voter suppression, mass disinformation, foreign interference, and unabashed use of executive branch power to shape events, and perceptions, this fall.”
It was a reminder that the polls only tell part of any election story. In 2016, Trump nearly always appeared to be heading to defeat by Hillary Clinton. This time polls appear to point to a Biden landslide. The former vice-president leads Trump by 14 percentage points in a national survey of registered voters by the New York Times and Siena College.
As expected, the poll showed Biden well ahead among women, young people and African American and Hispanic voters. Alarmingly for the president, Biden had also drawn level among white voters, men, and middle-aged and older voters – typically the pillars of Trump’s support. This and numerous other polls also show Trump trailing badly in six swing states likely to decide the all-important electoral college.
At the start of the year Trump was confident of victory, but the research suggests voters are punishing him for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, exacerbation of the economic crisis and violent response to Black Lives Matter protests. This week he continued to downplay the virus, and staged campaign events with few face masks and little physical distancing, even as the daily infection rate soared to an all-time high of more than 40,000.
But Trump’s foes have learned to write him off at their peril. He once famously boasted that he could shoot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. He still has the significant advantages of incumbency and, opponents say, of being entirely untroubled by a moral conscience: the president will stop at nothing to cling to power.
Kristol, editor at large of the Bulwark website and director of the advocacy organisation Defending Democracy Together, said in an interview: “The special circumstances with Trump are his total abandonment of any constraints and even more important, perhaps, his having people around him who’ve abandoned any constraints on the way in which they’ll use the federal government, the executive branch, to say things, do things, pretend to do things.
“Richard Nixon did a little of that in 1972, and of course presidents always tout good news in the months before the election. But this time, it’s the degree to which you could have a real sustained effort to suppress minority voting and not make it easy for young people to vote.
“It’s the degree to which you could have foreign intervention and also Trump colluding, not in the sense of coordinating but just welcoming it and making it easier. It’s the degree to which you could have Putin deciding if he wants Trump re-elected, to give Trump a ‘foreign policy victory’ weeks before the election, which will turn out to be not a real victory months later.”
Kristol added: “It’s the use of loyalists at the office of the Director of National Intelligence and to some degree the state department and justice department. It’s the degree to which we’ll get ‘new’ news about Biden and [his son] Hunter Biden, sort of based on something but wildly exaggerated and trumpeted and on Fox News.
“If you put all that together and you have a circumstance where someone is really shameless and a lot of the normal constraints have weakened, it’s conceivable that the reluctant Trump voter from 2016 who’s become a reluctant Biden voter in 2020 goes back to being a reluctant Trump voter. That’s what worries me the most.”
Voter suppression has haunted US elections for decades but the pandemic presents Trump with new opportunities. States are seeking a massive expansion of mail-in ballots so people do not have risk their health by queuing and voting in person. The president has intensified claims that this will lead to widespread cheating, even though several studies have shown that voter fraud is extremely rare.
“RIGGED 2020 ELECTION: MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES, AND OTHERS,” was a false claim he tweeted this week in capital letters. “IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!”
His wild words are often backed by organizational muscle and action. The Republican National Committee has devoted $20m to opposing Democratic lawsuits across the country seeking to expand voting. Republicans are also reportedly aiming to recruit up to 50,000 people in 15 key states to serve as poll watchers and challenge the registration of voters they believe are ineligible.
Monika McDermott, a political science professor at Fordham University in New York, said: “What we’re seeing in some primary states is the closures of polling places in African American dominated areas and mistaken purging of Democrats from the voter rolls. Some of this is anecdotal, but it is worrying all the same. And it will, no doubt, continue through the general election.”
Only three incumbent presidents have been defeated for reelection since the second world war: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush. Trump has the advantages of the bully pulpit, support from Fox News and other conservative media, a huge data harvesting operation and more cash than Biden. He is traveling the country, throwing virus caution to the winds, as the Democrat remains mostly confined to his basement.
But critics fear that the president could also bend state apparatus to his advantage, noting the loyalty of officials such as attorney general Bill Barr, who ordered security forces to use tear gas against peaceful protesters outside the White House so his boss could stage a photo op.
Trump has repeatedly asserted a baseless conspiracy theory called “Obamagate”, claiming that former president Barack Obama and Biden concocted fake allegations about Trump’s links to Russia in a “coup” to deny him the White House. He could pressure Barr and Republicans in Congress to focus on this, as well as on Biden’s son Hunter’s business activities in Ukraine, as election day nears.
Lawrence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, said: “He could announce, perhaps without any basis at all, in mid-October that a new vaccine has been found, and he could pressure the FDA [Food and Drug Administration]to approve it and that could mess with the vote. He could get help of the sort he has already asked for from China and Russia to interfere with the vote.”
“He could engage in conspiratorial vote suppression in which a number of people are prevented from voting by a sudden announcement that there is a spike in the coronavirus in certain jurisdictions. The power that he has as president to both manipulate the votes actually cast, and in addition to that, to launch challenges where his manipulation has not been sufficiently successful is enormously broad.”
Tribe added: “If we know nothing else about this man, we know that his priorities are entirely personal and narcissistic. We know that he is not worried about the stability or the safety of the country and, given that set of psychological realities, it would take a much more ironclad process than we have to warrant any degree of confidence that we will have a smooth and peaceful transition to a new president next January.”
Another of Kristol’s warnings is about foreign interference.
Special counsel Robert Mueller identified 272 contacts between Trump’s 2016 campaign team and Russia-linked operatives, including at least 38 meetings. Last year, asked by ABC News if he would take dirt on an opponent from a foreign source, the president said candidly: “I think I’d take it.”
Trump was impeached for asking the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden on baseless charges in return for $400m in military aid. And in his new memoir, former national security adviser John Bolton alleges that Trump pleaded with China’s president Xi Jinping to help him get re-elected by buying more US agricultural products.
Neil Sroka, a spokesperson for the progressive group Democracy for America, said: “We already know he’s actively solicited the help of a foreign government in this election from the Bolton book.”
And concerns persist that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are still doing too little to weed out foreign-based accounts that spread disinformation aimed at dividing Americans and potentially helping Trump.
Sroka added: “I don’t think we have any reason to believe that foreign actors would be successful in intruding in our voting systems, which means that the way in which they have an impact is through disinformation and trying to stoke up divides within ourselves. That’s another reason why it’s so important that we make sure we win big.”
Scarred by 2016, Democrats know their greatest threat could be complacency, especially among younger voters who might decide to stay at home on a rainy day and not get around to voting. Biden, who held a virtual fundraiser with Obama this week, tweeted: “Ignore the polls. Register to vote.”
With four months to go, anything could happen.
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist based in Columbia, South Carolina, agreed that Trump should not be underestimated. “We should adopt the philosophy that there’s no education in the second kick of the mule,” he said.
“If someone finds success in something before, they’re going to try to use those same ingredients to find success again. He is willing to do, to say, to have and be a part of anything that will position him to come across the finish line first, even if it means doing what is not in the long term best interests of this country.”