Donald Trump can still win the 2020 presidential election; something that has a 10% or 15% chance of happening can certainly transpire. But even more than in 2016, if the president wins this time, we will have to attribute his victory to the workings of divine providence (don’t worry, I have that column pre-written), because what we’re watching is an incumbent doing everything in his power to run up his own margin of defeat.
Start with his reelection messaging, to the extent that you can discern such a thing. In 2016, Trump’s campaign was shambolic and punctuated by self-inflicted disasters, but his message against Hillary Clinton, like his message against the Republican establishment in the primaries, had a simplicity and consistency: She supported bad trade deals; she supported stupid wars; she sold the country out to special interests and foreign governments; vote for her and you get more closed factories, more soldiers dead or crippled, more illegal immigration, more power to Wall Street and Washington, D.C.
In 2020, on the other hand, the Trump campaign has been stuck toggling back and forth between two very different narratives. One seeks to replay the last campaign, portraying Joe Biden as the embodiment of a failed establishment (hence all the references to his 47 years in Washington) who will sell out American interests to China as soon as he’s back in power (hence the attempts to elevate Hunter Biden’s influence-peddling).
But the other narrative goes after Biden as though the Democrats had actually nominated Bernie Sanders, insisting that his advancing age makes him a decrepit vessel for the radical left, a stalking horse not just for Kamala Harris but also for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and antifa.
A truly brilliant campaigner might be able to weave these two narratives together, but on the lips of Donald Trump their contradictions are evident. The resulting incoherence just feeds his tendency to return to old grudges and very online grievances, as though he’s running for the presidency of talk radio or his own Twitter feed. Without Steve Bannon to keep him grounded or Clinton to keep him focused, he’s making a closing “argument” that’s indistinguishable from a sales pitch for a TV show or a newsletter — suggesting that even more than four years ago, the president assumes he’ll be in the media business as soon as the election returns come in.
But the messaging failure is just the surface; it’s on policy where Trump has really acted like a Black Sox ballplayer trying to throw the World Series. There are two major issues for voters in this election: the pandemic and the economy. Trump’s numbers on handling the virus are lousy, but his numbers on handling the economy are still pretty good, presumably thanks to both the memory of where the unemployment rate stood before the coronavirus hit and the fact that the flood of COVID-19 relief spending kept people’s disposable income up.
This context suggested an obvious fall campaign strategy: Push more relief money into the economy, try to ostentatiously take the pandemic seriously and promise the country that mask-wearing and relief dollars are a bridge to a vaccine and normalcy in 2021.
Instead Trump has ended up with the opposite approach. He mostly ignored the negotiations over relief money for months, engaging only at a point where he had become so politically weak that both Republican deficit hawks (or the born-again variety, at least) and Democratic free-spenders assume he’ll soon be gone. And meanwhile he’s let himself be drawn ever deeper — especially since his own encounter with the disease — into the libertarian style of COVID-19 contrarianism, which argues that we’re overtesting, overreacting and probably close to herd immunity anyway.
There is a mild contrarianism that makes important points: The lockdown approach wasn’t sustainable and can’t be reimposed, most elementary schools should be open because the risks of spread seem pretty low, the virus is less deadly than the initial worst-case projections suggested, and deaths as a share of cases are going down with better treatment.
But the strong version keeps being wrong. First, the past two months have made it clear that herd immunity is a moving target: You can achieve it provisionally under social-distancing conditions, but once people relax and start socializing again, the threshold changes, and suddenly you get a renewed spike. This is what happened across Europe, which crushed its case rates in the late spring, returned to more normal life in the summer — and then reaped an early-fall wave that’s now fully out of control, including in countries like Belgium that were hit intensely in the first go-round.
Meanwhile, just because tests reveal more mild cases doesn’t mean the virus has stopped killing people. Over and over again, case numbers spike and deaths lag and contrarians talk about how the virus is just a “casedemic” — and then a few weeks go by, and deaths follow cases up. It happened in the United States over the summer, it’s happened in Europe in the past month, and now it’s probably about to happen here again: Our cases have been rising since early September, our hospitalizations have been rising for several weeks, and while deaths are flat for now (at “only” 711 Americans a day), it’s likely they’ll be rising again by the time we hit November.
Which means that Trump has chosen to go to war with the idea of testing, with Dr. Anthony Fauci and with “experts” in general at precisely the moment when the fall wave they’ve been warning about seems to be showing up — which is also the moment when the two-thirds of Americans who describe themselves as “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the virus will be going to the polls.
Strictly as a policymaking matter, this is Trump’s worst behavior since his springtime push for the fastest-possible reopening. Europe’s renewed crisis shows that the Western failure to contain the virus is much more than just a Trump problem — but on the margins, in the thousands if not the hundreds of thousands, Trumpian denial can still get Americans unnecessarily killed.
As politics, meanwhile, even more than the mixed messaging on Biden and the missed opportunities on relief spending, the retreat to corona-minimizing is a case study in how the Trump of 2020 has ceded his biggest general-election advantage from 2016 — his relative distance from the ideological rigidities of the anti-government right — and locked himself into a small box with flatterers and cranks.
From these follies the God of surprises might yet deliver him. But every decision of his own lately has been a choice for political defeat.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.