Michael McDowell: Donald Trump is running out of scapegoats

Grotesque performances hit US president’s popularity perhaps to Biden’s advantage

April 14th, 2020: US president Donald Trump has announced that he would halt payments to the World Health Organisation (WHO) over their handling of the coronavirus outbreak, while his administration carried out a review. Video: Reuters

 

If you look at betting odds on the November US presidential election, there is still a close-run thing between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

But if you then examine the betting odds on the likely individual state results which in the end decide the electoral college, Biden’s candidacy has a clear advantage in the majority of states.

Trump still remains narrow favourite in Florida and Texas and has a clear lead in most of the confederacy states and in most midwestern agricultural states. But he seems to be in serious trouble in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio and in many western states. Trump has to write off New England entirely.

Alone of all western leaders, his overall approval rating has slumped during the Covid-19 crisis. His recent strategy was to attempt to redress the impression that he had made a disastrous start in the crisis by taking centre stage in the daily White House press briefings.

That strategy was initially successful. He was doing quite well until mid-April. But now his grotesque media performances have reduced his approval ratings to the 43 per cent range. He cannot hold his campaign rallies due to lockdowns in key states.

It is not yet beyond the bounds of possibility that Trump will attempt to provoke an international crisis to allow him to appear to be making America great again

Biden is staying low-key and the Democrats are offering no easy targets. The Trump playbook needs credible blame opportunities and there are few on offer. He knows that and consequently he has picked rows with the World Health Organisation and China. He desperately needs scapegoats. But he may have hunted them to the edge of extinction.

Former US vice-president Joe Biden: his national lead among Democrats has been fairly durable through the summer, polls show. Photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images
Joe Biden is staying low-key and the Democrats are offering no easy targets. File photograph: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty 

So he faltered in his resolve to continue his daily briefings. He blamed media negativity for cancellation of the briefings. But now he realises that he has stumbled badly and perversely wants to be back in the limelight.

Trump’s blunders

The problem is that his massive ego just can’t accept he is making a hames of his re-election bid. Nobody around him has the courage to tell him that to his face. He simply could not accept that Mike Pence is far more adept and presidential in his handling of the crisis, even allowing that he spends a lot of time trying to gloss over Trump’s blunders.

The state governors, whether Democrat or Republican, have much higher approval ratings in their states than Trump has nationally. This irks Trump hugely. Even Fox News has landed the odd punch on him.

This is a bit of a nightmare for Trump. He will do anything to secure re-election – virtually anything – as long as he keeps the rich on board. He will need their donations.

If the domestic economy sinks into depression, as appears quite likely, Trump faces a huge mountain to climb if he wants to have any recovery going by November. What is a recovery anyway? Wall Street is beginning to resemble a huge Ponzi scheme where investors are desperate to find grounds for false optimism.

Oil prices, falling market indices and major industrial casualties are looming. Unemployment is at record levels. Jobs won’t just bounce back in SMEs that are starved of cash flow and working capital. Reversing redundancies and layoffs will take time.

And time is one thing Trump just has not got on his side. Easing the lockdown is a necessary but insufficient condition for recovery. States which reopen too fast risk upsurges in Covid-19 infections.

Champion of reopening

Does that worry Trump? Not much. It may concern Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who will be sidelined from now on. If Trump can become the undisputed champion of reopening, he may well decide to portray the Democrats as a whingeing coalition of Jeremiahs and Jonahs.

His opponents have to avoid the label of pessimists in an America desperate for hope. They have to embrace the role of planners for recovery by spelling out a roadmap in the same way that Nicola Sturgeon and Angela Merkel have grasped the need to bring the people with them.

Of course, Biden could blow it with a blunder or by appearing to be well beyond his sell-by date

It is not yet beyond the bounds of possibility that Trump will attempt to provoke an international crisis to allow him to appear to be making America great again. The only problem is that he has few international targets that do not risk another share-price crash.

Iran is no threat. And attacking Iran would risk another oil-price crash. North Korea is an implausible target. Curbing China’s expansionism in the South China Sea would be very risky. Syria is offering no low-hanging fruit at this point. Venezuela might fill the bill. Backing Israel against the hapless Palestinians is done and dusted.

Unless an unexpected or fabricated pretext for an international excursion presents itself, the prospect of a khaki election bounce looks forlorn.

Of course, Biden could blow it with a blunder or by appearing to be well beyond his sell-by date.

But if he is careful, reasonable, kind, uniting and inclusive in his campaigning, whenever that starts in earnest, his likeability and Trump’s woes should see him home. Oh what a happy day that would be for all of us – especially America.

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