The Inherent Weakness of the Trump Presidency
The question of who will win the 2020 presidential election has become more intense in recent weeks. For an extended period, political commentators considered the possibility of a Biden landslide. They cited Biden’s polling successes and Republicans’ decision to continue spending money in formerly staunch Texas. But as for any narrative, a counterpoint emerged. Trump still had a massive war chest and several benefits of incumbency. His historical predecessors who had been similarly counted out were still able to roar back to victory. A recent poll in former swing state Missouri seemingly gave credence to Trump’s viability, finding him up by seven points. Also, Trump still held his base, with polls showing continued enthusiasm for the president among his closest supporters.
This counter-narrative was put to rest last week in a study by the Cook Political Report. As documented by Eric Levitz in New York, the Report is often one of the more historically careful prognosticators in the business of political forecasting. Even so, the Report’s Amy Walter argued last week that Biden was the clear frontrunner at this point in the presidential race. In addition to polling and focus group results, Walter mentioned another key reason for Trump’s poor situation: his inability to change or act much on his own behalf. Walter wrote, “we also know that the president is not interested in changing his approach or focus.”
This recent report adds more evidence to what has been an ongoing theme of the past four years. Laziness, even more than cultural resentment or racism, defines the Trump presidency, and if Trump loses it will be the clearest reason for his defeat.
The fear of a Trump comeback is justified. Trump is the president, after all. He still has the power of the military and the pardon. He can still command a news cycle with a single tweet. This power to shape public discussion was on full display in the runup to the 2018 midterms. In October of that year, Trump made a half-hearted comment about passing a middle class tax cut. The political media went abuzz. “Trump wants new middle-class tax cut ‘of about 10 percent,’” was the headline at POLITICO, while The Washington Post went with “Trump promises to unveil ‘resolution’ for middle-class tax cut in midterm messaging move.” Trump had no plan and no chance of passing anything to help the middle class. Regardless, several outlets took the move seriously and reported on it for days.
But Trump’s inherent weakness and laziness constitute a ceiling to how much he can accomplish in the next three months. At no point in his presidency has he shown the ability to do anything that required more than a few seconds of planning. Trump’s largest victories, the tax cut bill of 2017 and the appointment of dozens of federal judges, were achieved by outside groups and Congress. Most notably, he has done almost nothing to combat the coronavirus on the federal level. Trump refused to impose national restrictions on large gatherings or coordinate large-scale testing drives. He did not use his executive power to force manufacturers to produce personal protective equipment. This work would have been hard, so the president decided to take the easy way out and spend his time arguing with the governors who were actually fighting against the virus.
Trump could not even make a political victory out of the most egregious actions by liberal protesters over the past month. He could have coordinated arrests or signed an executive order protecting some monuments, particularly those of Republican leaders like Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln that have been targeted in recent weeks. Instead, Trump issued a handful of weak, vague declarations about “protecting history” and went back to complaining about his ratings on Twitter. He has no plan for protecting any sort of monument. His ideas will not and cannot be enacted, and if it were not for his legion of followers his rambling words would evaporate into the ether the moment after they were tweeted.
The idea that the president will be able to capitalize on racial strife or culture war topics is predicated on the idea that the president could capitalize on anything. And there is no evidence that such an action is possible. The tools of the presidency give an incumbent the ability to dig themselves out of a hole and eventually secure reelection. The only problem for Trump is that he is too lazy to dig.