It’s Slowly Dawning on Trump That He’s Losing

The president is raging at his advisers, as they try to explain where he went wrong.

Drew Angerer / Getty

It’s far too early to know who will win the 2020 presidential election, but at the moment, President Donald Trump is losing.

There’s ample polling to back that up. RealClearPolitics’s average has the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, up 6.3 percent on Trump. Polling averages in each of the potentially decisive states show Biden up, too, save North Carolina—and even there, the most recent polls show Biden ahead by 5 percent. A survey of Texans released yesterday even has Biden up by a point in the Lone Star State.

But you don’t have to take the public polling at face value. Take the president’s and his campaign’s word for it.

“I don’t believe the polls,” Trump told Reuters yesterday. Claiming the polls are wrong is the last refuge of a struggling candidate. “I believe the people of this country are smart. And I don’t think that they will put a man in who’s incompetent.” (A bit late for that.)

Privately, however, Trump is not so sanguine. Late yesterday, a trio of stories arrived reporting on turmoil inside the president’s reelection campaign. It’s a throwback to the news-dump Fridays of the early Trump administration—or to the fractious leaks that characterized Trump’s 2016 campaign. CNN reported that Trump screamed at his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, last Friday over his sliding poll numbers, even threatening to sue him. (How serious the threat was, CNN notes, is unclear, and Trump issues empty lawsuit threats as reflexively as many people check their phone.)

The New York Times confirms that account, and The Washington Post adds more detail, saying that campaign, White House, and Republican National Committee officials held a de facto intervention, trying to impress upon the president the political peril he faces and to get him to rein in his catastrophic daily briefings.

None of this predetermines a Trump loss in November, of course. At this stage four years ago, the Trump campaign was fractious, dealing with a possibly overmatched novice campaign manager, and trailing in the polls to Hillary Clinton, and he shocked the world by winning the election.

That upset may help to explain Trump’s fury now. The president is still fighting the last war, trying to rerun the 2016 campaign in a new environment. Trump clearly has never really moved on from the previous race, tweeting about it as recently as this morning. No campaign rally is complete without a lengthy soliloquy on the 2016 race, and Trump never stopped holding campaign rallies, even in the first months of his term in office. As recently as this January, a (misleading) map of the 2016 election results has been spotted on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. He also continues to claim that the election was a landslide, rather than a loss in the popular vote—which he sometimes explains away with bogus claims of fraud.

One can imagine the president’s side of this argument. In 2016, he did everything he was told not to do—by “smart” Republicans, by the media, and by many of his own aides—and still won. The engine of that victory, he believes, was his personal connection with American voters, cemented through the constant rallies he held. He’s feeling cabin fever and eager to get out of the house—you and me both, Mr. President—and back on the campaign trail. He said yesterday at a White House event that he plans to travel to Arizona next week. (One difference between you and me and the president is that while we’re all cooped up, he has hosted an endless procession of visitors from around the country for photo ops at the White House.)

Trump sees his poll numbers sliding and wants to get back on the trail to buck them up, no matter the public-health risks. And if he can’t do that, he wants to hold daily press appearances where he can thrust himself into the spotlight, a proxy for rallies. More than a few pundits have likened the daily briefings to rallies, with the added benefit of Anthony Fauci for a prop.

One can see the traces of this interpretation in the Times report:

Mr. Trump demanded to know how it was possible that a campaign that had been projecting strength and invincibility for two years was polling behind a candidate he viewed as extremely weak and, at the moment, largely invisible from daily news coverage.

There are several problems with this analysis. First, Trump’s projection of strength was always flimsy; although Trump entered the election as a slight favorite, the race was always likely to be tight. Second, Biden was never quite so weak as Trump claims here, and probably stronger than Hillary Clinton (despite manifest flaws). Third, Biden’s invisibility looks like an asset; the Democrat is, by choice or necessity, letting Trump run against himself, to great effect. Finally, this account ignores the central political fact of the moment, which is that tens of thousands of Americans have died in a pandemic that polls show voters believe Trump has botched.

Trump was lucky in his opponent in 2016. Though the media generally treated her as a prohibitive front-runner in 2016, Clinton had several flaws that were apparent at the time. She was widely disliked, had already run an ineffective campaign for president once, and faced the additional burden of widespread sexism. Biden, like Clinton, is vulnerable to attacks over his long record in public life, but he is better liked. Trump could also run against the status quo in 2016. In 2020, he is the status quo, and it’s a status quo that is getting worse by the day, as measured by economic indicators and death toll.

The White House has pursued a Baghdad Bob–style line about the pandemic. “The worst of the pain and suffering is going to be behind us,” Trump said yesterday. “We think we really have passed a big boundary. Much better days are ahead.” His son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, was still more effusive on Fox and Friends. “We’re on the other side of the medical aspect of this, and I think that we’ve achieved all the different milestones that are needed,” he said. “So the government, federal government, rose to the challenge, and this is a great success story, and I think that that’s really what needs to be told.”

To anyone paying much attention, or even anyone simply comparing this with the administration’s benchmarks from a couple of months ago, it is absurd. But in addition to a predilection for hyperbole, Trump has a tendency to believe his own spin, so perhaps he has bought into the narrative he’s peddling.

Trump may yet win the election. There’s a lot of time between now and November, and the pandemic and volatile economy make it hard to even envision the territory on which the battle will be fought. But at the moment, Trump is losing and he doesn’t understand why. Because the president continues to fixate on the previous election, and interpret it in questionable fashion, he is desperate to keep talking, oblivious to the self-inflicted damage his press conferences create. He has killed the daily briefings, for now, and in name, but continues to speak with reporters and the public in other forums. It scratches his itch for public attention a little, but it can’t replace the big rallies that he seems to believe are the salvation for his campaign. In 2016, Trump’s inability to keep his mouth shut turned out to be just crazy enough to work. He hasn’t grasped that in 2020, it’s the problem, rather than the solution.