Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Crucifixion of Donald Trump ...

… and his 2020 resurrection?

The Trump Show, Season 2, Begins writes Michelle Cottle, a member of the NY Times editorial board. To hear the president tell it, the battle for the apocalypse has been joined.

Trump Crucified
Trump Crucified

Trump revels in playing the role of a martyr with all the fervor of an iconic leader of a religious cult. All the visuals, all the hype, are meant to portray to his masses that he is the victim and without him the country will be headed straight to socialistic hell.

[In his Orlando kickoff] the president was in his element and visibly relieved to have wrested the spotlight from Democrats for one glorious evening. Every so often, he’d pause in his remarks to wander about the stage, basking in the adulation. Whenever the crowd erupted in one of the chants that have become a staple of his rallies — “Build the Wall!” “CNN sucks!” “Lock her up!” — the president glowed. If nothing else, Mr. Trump made clear that he has no interest in expanding his appeal this cycle. He is digging in and doubling down with his base, for whom he can do no wrong.

… In the kickoff of his insurgency four years ago, Mr. Trump drifted down the escalator of Trump Tower to the thumping strains of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” and sold himself as the antidote to politics as usual. Dismissing America’s political leaders as “losers,” he declared the American dream dead and pitched himself as the only candidate who could bring it back “bigger and better and stronger than ever before.” He was going to solve the nation’s toughest problems, and it was all going to be so easy.

In Orlando, Mr. Trump reprised that theme. “The fact is the American dream is back,” he crowed. “It is bigger and better and stronger than ever before.” Two and a half years into his presidency, however, many of the miracles he vowed to perform have not come to pass. He has not repealed and replaced Obamacare with something better, nor stopped manufacturing jobs from flowing overseas. He has not rebuilt America’s infrastructure, brought Iran to heel or tamed the national debt.

It is a tricky line that Mr. Trump will attempt to toe over the next 18 months. As the sitting president, he needs voters to feel good about the job he has done — good enough to turn out and give him another four years. The animating force of his political success, however, has always been cultural grievance. He is the master of stoking voters’ most primal anxieties and resentments. Tuesday’s speech suggests that going forward, the president’s struggle to reconcile these conflicting imperatives will not be pretty — or good for the country.

If his message in 2016 was that the political establishment and cultural elitists were exploiting, ignoring and sneering at regular Americans, his message this time is that the opposition despises and is aggressively plotting to destroy MAGA country. “Our patriotic movement has been under assault from the very first day,” he declared.

As Mr. Trump tells it, this hatred for “hard-working patriots” is at the root of any and all attacks on his leadership. It’s not that Democrats are out to get him; they are out to get his people. “They went after my family, my business, my finances, my employees, almost everyone I have ever known or worked with, but they are really going after you,” he told the Orlando crowd. “That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about us. It’s about you. They tried to erase your votes, and erase your legacy of the greatest campaign and the greatest election probably in the history of our country.”

Despite this unprecedented assault, Mr. Trump said, he — and by extension, his people — have prevailed. “We accomplished more than any other president has in the first two and a half years of a presidency,” he said. “And under circumstances that no president has had to deal with before. We took on a political machine that tried to take away your voice and your vote. They tried to take away your dignity and your destiny. But we will never let them do that.”

So, even as Mr. Trump brags of having made America great again, he does it in a way that fuels voters’ anger and fear. Democrats are “driven by hatred, prejudice and rage,” he warned. “Just imagine what this angry, left-wing mob would do if they were in charge of this country.”

Mr. Trump stressed to the crowd the importance of next year’s vote: “This election is not merely a verdict on the amazing progress we’ve made. It’s a verdict on the un-American conduct of those who tried to undermine our great democracy and undermine you.”

In that, at last, he spoke the raw truth.

Amen to that.

But now let’s leave Trump channeling Elmer Gantry and look at his chances in 2020.

For one thing “Somebody seems to miss Hillary Clinton”, Gail Collins notes in Trump’s Running Again. Still.:

He’s in desperate need of new material. Trump spent a good part of his big kickoff rally attacking Hillary Clinton (“33,000 emails deleted! Think of it!”). His speech was pretty much the same one he’s been making to his fans for the last four years.

But they don’t notice - or perhaps, just as when it comes to his 10,000 lies, they just don’t care.

So what are the chances that Trump can parlay his self-pronounced crucifixion into a 2020 resurrection? John Cassidy (New Yorker) considers the question What Are the Chances of Trump Being Reëlected?. The short answer is: “Early polls suggest that Donald Trump will face challenges in winning votes from independents and in some key battleground states.”

On Tuesday night, in Orlando, Donald Trump formally launched his 2020 reëlection effort with another big rally. After what happened in 2016, it behooves political analysts and commentators to approach the upcoming campaign with caution. So, I will put it no more strongly than this: with sixteen and a half months to go, the President and his campaign staff have reasons to be concerned.

The good news for Trump is that he retains a solid base of support, and the demographic to which he has the strongest appeal—white Americans who don’t have a college degree—still represents a very big chunk of the electorate. Plus, the unemployment rate is just 3.5 per cent, and most Americans are optimistic about the economy. The bad news for the Trump campaign is that other demographic groups seem to have turned even more heavily against him, and a strong economy has failed to lift his approval ratings. Moreover, recent polls suggest that he is in trouble in a number of battleground states, including the three that were key to his victory last time: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

You probably don’t need reminding that, thanks to the vagaries of the American political system, Trump won with just 46.1 per cent of the national vote, and a favorability rating that was considerably lower. On November 7, 2016, the day before the election, 37.5 per cent of American voters had a favorable opinion of him, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average, which suggests that either the polls were wrong or large numbers of people voted for him despite not particularly liking him. After his victory, his favorability rating rose to the low forties during the transition, where it has largely stayed. The latest R.C.P. poll average showed him with a favorability rating of 43.8 per cent, which is pretty close to his latest job-approval rating—44.3 per cent on Wednesday. It doesn’t seem to matter what he does or says: these numbers don’t change much.

Among whites without a college degree, according to the network exit poll, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by more than two to one—sixty-six per cent to twenty-nine per cent. This slice of the electorate represents Trump’s heartland, and according to the exit poll it accounted for about a third of all voters in 2016. (Thirty-four per cent to be precise.) However, some political experts believe that estimate is too low. In a 2017 study that drew on actual voter files, national-opinion surveys, and their own post-election polling, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, of the Center for American Progress, and Rob Griffin, a political scientist at George Washington University, concluded that forty-five per cent of the voters in 2016 were whites without a college degree—eleven percentage points more than the figure from the exit poll.

The more there are of this type of voter, the better Trump’s chances. So what about 2020? Ongoing demographic changes are steadily making the country more diverse. But, in a 2018 analysis, Griffin, Teixeira, and William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, estimated that next year whites without college degrees will make up forty-four per cent of the electorate—just slightly more than in 2016. If this analysis is correct, non-college whites will still be the biggest single voting bloc on the basis of race and education. Plus, they are spread out across the country. The “concentration of Democratic support in metropolitan areas diffuses over-all demographic advantages and increases the chances that large turnout and support from Trump’s base, primarily white noncollege-educated voters in more rural and working class states, can once again lead to a narrow victory” in the Electoral College, Halpin and Teixeira noted.

Now on the brighter side …

But if Trump has a potential pathway back to the White House, he also has some very big obstacles in his way, beginning with the fact that, even if white non-college voters did make up forty-four per cent of the 2020 electorate, and he got two-thirds of their support again, it would leave him at roughly thirty per cent of the over-all vote. To win, he also has to attract the support of other groups, such as whites with college degrees, independents, and Latinos. But the message of the 2018 midterms, and of recent opinion polls, is that many people in these groups have had their fill of him and want him gone. Outside of his base, he’s just not popular. And that is putting it mildly.

Interestingly, the (correct) belief that Trump’s policies are targeted at helping the well-to-do is widespread among his core demographic. Thirty-two per cent of whites without a college degree said that his policies benefit everyone; forty-four per cent said they benefited people with more money. On the basis of these polls, it seems like Trump’s tax bill didn’t even fool his base.

The other challenge facing Trump is the electoral map. At this early stage, he is lagging behind the Democratic frontrunners in some of the states he could not win without, such as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Public polls have been showing this trend for months, and last week it emerged that the Trump campaign’s own polls have found the same thing. According to ABC News, internal polls showed Joe Biden leading the President by fifty-five per cent to thirty-nine per cent in Pennsylvania, and by fifty-one per cent to forty-one per cent in Wisconsin.

Over the weekend, the Trump campaign dismissed these polls, which were taken in March, as out of date, and fired several of its pollsters. “The president’s new polling is extraordinary and his numbers have never been better,” Brad Parscale, the campaign chairman, said in a statement. Trump also weighed in. “Our polls show us leading in all 17 Swing States,” he said on Twitter. And yet, hours after he posted this tweet, the Quinnipiac poll of Florida showed that, in head-to-head matches, he would trail Joe Biden by nine points, trail Bernie Sanders by six points, and trail Elizabeth Warren by four points.

A degree of skepticism is in order. Historically, head-to-head polls taken this early haven’t had much, if any, predictive value in Presidential elections, an analysis at Five-Thirty-Eight pointed out. It certainly seems likely that Trump’s numbers in the battleground states will improve as we get closer to the election: practically nobody in the political world expects a Democrat to carry Florida by nine percentage points. But how much movement will there be? With opinions about Trump already so firmly set on all sides, it isn’t certain that prior experience will provide much of a guide to this election.

Indeed, nothing is certain, except that there is a very long way to go, and that the election will be bitterly fought. Buckle up.

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