If this is the most important election of our lifetimes, is it too much to ask that the president of the United States act like it?
The president’s most devoted backers talk about the election in apocalyptic terms -- Michael Anton of Hillsdale College, author of the famous “The Flight 93 Election” essay in 2016, is the unsurpassed master of the genre.
The stakes are undoubtedly huge. The policy swing from a President Donald Trump to a President Joe Biden alone would be massive, and progressives are talking about adding states for more Democratic Senate seats and packing the Supreme Court -- changes meant to shift the balance of American government enduringly in their direction.
The warnings from the right about the potentially existential stakes of 2020 often inveigh against Republican pundits critical of Trump, yet never get around to urging any correction on the president’s part. Indeed, even as Trump, too, talks in dire tones about the consequences of a Biden victory, he doesn’t seem to have absorbed the message.
If the existence of the country itself is on the ballot, why not prepare better for debates? Why not use Twitter exclusively for messages that advance his cause rather than detract from them? Why waste any time on petty animosities and distractions? Why not write down a health care plan and a COVID-19 plan to blunt Biden’s most potent issues?
Why not, in short, do a few things that are uncomfortable or unnatural in the cause of, you know, saving the country from imminent political destruction?
Of course, by this point, even asking these questions seem naive, although there were times in 2016 when Trump modulated his behavior enough to make a difference.
Prior to the first Trump-Biden debate, journalist Ryan Lizza looked back at the 2016 Trump-Hillary clashes and made the case that Trump was relatively disciplined and kept coming back to his central themes.
In his first clash with Biden, in contrast, an out-of-control Trump blew himself up in the course of trying to demolish the former vice president. If Biden was calculatedly evasive and canned, Trump was profligate and underprepared -- the way he almost always is.
As my colleague, Ramesh Ponnuru points out, in 2016 Trump fastened on underappreciated issues that voters cared about -- trade, immigration and PC. This time, he’s focused on matters that obsess him, not the average voter.
The sources of the Russia investigation should, as a matter of basic accountability, be established and disclosed. But no one who is not already a Trump voter cares about dubious investigatory decisions from four years ago.
Nor is anyone as exercised as the president about critical things said about him on cable TV programs.
Trump has waged a low intensity campaign against masks, for no good reason. By setting himself against them, largely on aesthetic grounds, Trump further opened himself up to charges that he doesn’t take the virus seriously -- even before his illness and the White House outbreak.
Consider, on the other side of the ledger, how Trump, by and large, leads on the top issue of the election, the economy. Still, there has been no sustained case against Biden’s economic program. On what should be his foremost advantage, Trump has turned the famous James Carville adage on its head, “It’s everything else, stupid.”
If the time eventually comes for recriminations after a defeat in November (not a certainty, even at this late date), Trump’s hardcore supporters will have plenty of places to point -- a once-in-a-century pandemic and an overwhelmingly hostile media, among other things.
Be that as it may, Trump won’t have been stabbed in the back; he will have committed a form of political hara-kiri because he found it easier and more enjoyable than exercising a modicum of self-discipline.
If Trump loses, the story isn’t going to be what was done to him, rather what he did to himself.
Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.