Suzanne Lynch: Is this Trump’s last 100 days?

The danger for US president is that he is running the 2020 election campaign using the 2016 playbook

 US president Donald Trump arrives to speak to the press ahead of the renewed briefing of the coronavirus task force in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

US president Donald Trump arrives to speak to the press ahead of the renewed briefing of the coronavirus task force in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

 

In an interview with Donald Trump last weekend, TV host Chris Wallace posed a question that is preoccupying many Americans.

“Can you give a direct answer that you will accept the election?”

“I have to see,” replied Trump. “I have to see. No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either.”

Trump’s refusal to commit to accepting November’s election results is seen as the latest evidence of a leader drifting towards authoritarianism.

The concept of a peaceful transition of power is one of the basic tenets of democracy. Already Trump has been laying the ground for disputing the election result by questioning the reliability of postal voting. “Mail-in Voting, unless changed by the courts, will lead to the most CORRUPT ELECTION in our Nation’s History!” he tweeted this week, adding:”#RIGGEDELECTION”.

Despite his public bravado, a series of U-turns in the last week suggests that privately Trump is worried

But Trump’s brazen suggestion that he may delegitimise the election results come November is a mark of insecurity and weakness.

As America passes the 100-day mark before election day tomorrow, Trump appears to be in deep trouble. Polling over the last month shows Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, well ahead of the incumbent nationally and in the key battleground states that swung the election for Trump last time around. He has opened up a double-digit lead in an average of polls over the last month. Trump has remained defiant.

The polls were “fake in 2016, and now they’re even more fake,” he has declared. While his scepticism of polling is understandable given his unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016, Biden’s lead is much greater than Clinton’s was at this stage of the campaign. Even in swing states where Biden’s lead is tighter than the picture nationally, he is still comfortably ahead of Clinton’s polling margins.

Despite his public bravado, a series of U-turns in the last week suggests that privately Trump is worried.

The president has replaced his campaign manager Brad Parscale, who was blamed for last month’s disastrous rally in Tulsa when Trump faced rows of empty seats.

Trump has also made several pivots on the coronavirus pandemic, a topic that has become the defining issue ahead of the election.

This week he was forced to cancel next month’s Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, Florida, amid a surge in coronavirus cases.

After deriding advice to use face masks for months, he has now urged Americans to don face-coverings.

Similarly, he resumed daily coronavirus briefings at the White House, having abandoned the concept after a disastrous April press conference when he suggested ingesting bleach to guard against the virus. Reading from a pre-prepared script this week he struck a more contrite and less combative tone as he warned that the virus would “get worse before it will get better”, though he still insisted that America has “done better than most” countries.

Amid criticism that his campaign lacks any firm policy proposals, Trump has also gone on the offensive in a bid to elevate law and order to the centre of American political debate, presumably to deflect from coronavirus.

Trump ordered federal forces to Portland, Oregon, where nightly protests have been taking place since the death of George Floyd in May at the hand of Minneapolis police officers.

There is still time for Trump to turn the election around. But 100 days out from the election, things need to change dramatically for Trump if he is to become a second-term president.

He followed up by deploying more agents to Chicago this week, citing a recent spike in gun crime in the city, against the wishes of the city’s African-American Democrat mayor Lori Lightfoot. The sight of armed military agents patrolling America’s streets has alarmed those concerned about the state of American democracy, while giving Trump the perfect visual backdrop for his self-portrayal as a president who is tough on crime. This narrative is being supported by Fox News, which is running dramatic coverage of the protests that have resulted in no deaths, while a pandemic that has killed more than 140,000 Americans plays second fiddle in their news coverage.

Will these recent shifts in strategy work?

The danger for Trump is that he is running the 2020 election campaign using the 2016 playbook.

His characterisation of protestors as “radical lefts” and “anarchists” is a rewrite of his demonisation of Mexican and Muslim immigrants four years ago. This time the enemy without has become the enemy within, as Trump gambles on pitting Americans against Americans.

While Trump is betting that his instinctual ability to tap into the fears and anxieties of conservative Americans will see him through, the dynamics of this election cycle are different.

While Trump is likely correct in thinking that his core base of supporters – perhaps a solid 40 per cent of the national vote – will stick with him, his forfeiture of the middle ground is risky. Firstly, polls show that there were many more undecided voters in 2016 who ultimately broke for Trump, willing to give the political outsider a chance. This time they are casting their votes after Trump has had four years to prove himself, but has achieved very little. Biden is also a more popular choice than Clinton in some swing states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, even if his main attraction to voters is the fact that he is not Trump.

Data from the primary cycle this year also suggests worrying trends for Republicans. Following the surge in voter registration and turnout that saw Democrats win the House of Representatives in the mid-term elections of 2018, this year’s presidential primary elections also saw high turnout, despite the challenges of voting in a pandemic and technical difficulties around postal voting.

There is still time for Trump to turn the election around. The coronavirus pandemic may well be under control by the autumn, and Biden has yet to be tested electorally. But 100 days out from the election, things need to change dramatically for Trump if he is to become a second-term president.

Suzanne Lynch is Washington Correspondent

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