Rumours of death of Trump’s presidency an exaggerated hope
Democrats too quickly saw the leakage of allies as the beginning of the end for the US leader
US president Donald Trump: Americans knew he was a rogue when they elected him. Photograph: Doug Mills/New York Times
In Washington, where even the metaphors are militarised, the White House is said to be under “siege”. The word will not do. It implies outside hordes intent on entry. President Donald Trump can but wish for such a clamour.
With his caretaker chief of staff, his under-manned legal team and his sheepish desertion by once-servile Republicans, the flight of people from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is more notable than any gathering at the gates. We would not describe Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane, burning through friends and rattling around a house that is altogether too large for him, as besieged.
The trouble is that Democrats are too quick to see in this pitiable leakage of allies the beginning of the end of Trump. Yes, he is exposed to overlapping probes into his conduct by special counsel Robert Mueller and other investigators. The economy is due a downturn. And his opponents have the House of Representatives, as well as a squad of candidates jostling to challenge him in 2020.
But therein lies what hope he has. Until now, the alternative to Trump has been non-specific. Voters have been free to compare him to the ideal president of their imaginations or – that cipher invented for polling purposes – a “generic Democrat”. In 2019, the alternative to Trump will gain some flesh-and-blood definition, in the form of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, and in the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. The point is not that these politicians are useless. What they are, though, is human, with attackable flaws of character and policy.
For the first time since he beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, retiring her to a purgatory of under-attended speaking tours, Trump will have someone to define himself against. Voters who do not much like him will have to decide whether they actively prefer the substitutes on offer.
The answer might be affirmative. If Elizabeth Warren can escape the retrograde interest in the exact composition of her blood – a racial obsession that is un-American or all too American, I cannot decide which – she could be the photographic negative of Trump: a conscientious, policy-literate leader. To that end, the senator from Massachusetts has, like former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, set up one of those “ exploratory committees” whose explorations tend to conclude that, yes, a presidential bid is in order.
There would, for the first time in over two years, be a choice: Trump versus X, not Trump considered in isolation. Just as a currency can only be priced in terms of another, the popularity of a politician is meaningless except in comparison with a direct rival. To cite Trump’s dismal approval rating – a standalone measure – is to reveal only so much.
He will soon have identifiable opponents to pelt with questions. If not with a wall and visa curbs, how should immigration be controlled? How much more money should be sunk into the forever wars of the Middle East and central Asia? Universal healthcare is the future, say Democrats, but which model, at what cost, with which relative losers, compensated how?
None of which even allows for his knack of reducing an opponent with a brisk but somehow definitive insult – a “low energy” or a “crooked Hillary”. This sordid talent has been dormant while his opponent took an abstract form (globalism, liberalism, elitism) rather than a human with a face and a voice.
There are other reasons to hold off on the death notices for this presidency. A trade truce with China would calm markets and voters. If a recession does come, Trump will pin it (irresponsibly) on premature rate-tightening by hard-faced Poindexters at the Federal Reserve. As for scandal, Americans knew he was a rogue when they elected him. It is not clear why formal substantiation of this truth by Mueller, or anyone else, would do for him now. None of these reasons quite capture the president’s real advantage, though, which is his imminent acquisition of specific opponents.
Faced with multiple explanations for the same event, William of Occam advised us to choose the one that involves the fewest assumptions. Commentators have mislaid his “razor” since 2016. They have attributed Trump’s victory to epic historical forces concerning global economics and white angst that were “always” going to tell.
A simpler view is that a decisive number of swing voters just could not abide Mrs Clinton. It was the human contrast that worked for him, and he has had to do without such a foil these past two years. As of this month, no longer. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019