ANALYSIS — In January 2017, I wrote a column for “Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales” suggesting that Donald Trump’s aggressiveness in the weeks after he was inaugurated “could produce the same sort of reaction that Barack Obama’s fast start did in 2009: It could lead to a midterm election in which voters apply the brakes.”
I went on to note that, even in those early days, the new president was in the process of guaranteeing that 2018 would be “about him.”
Fast-forward three and a half years and we find ourselves in essentially the same place.
Don’t look so surprised. It was inevitable.
Everything that Donald Trump does or says is always primarily about Donald Trump. Unable to acknowledge mistakes, he is forced to make them again and again. If he concludes something went wrong, it is always because someone or something is undermining him.
No matter the person or organization’s initial reputation, whether it is a senator who was a war hero, a Gold Star family or, more recently, highly regarded former military officers, Trump demonizes and belittles people who disagree with him or find his language and conduct reprehensible.
Remember when Trump said in April 2016 that he would be “so presidential you will be so bored?” Well, that didn’t happen, unless by being “presidential,” he meant moving peaceful protesters for a photo-op or promising to put troops on the streets of some of our nation’s largest cities.
Trump can never act presidential for more than a few minutes. He can utter a few lines about bipartisanship, cooperation and national healing, but those messages simply are not part of his playbook. He is more comfortable making up derogatory nicknames, threatening his allies to keep them in line, bashing his political opponents to rally his base, uncovering plots and conspiracies, and tweeting about his popularity with Republicans.
With less than five months to go until Election Day, Trump is still behaving as if this were January 2017. He is using the same strategy to destroy his general election opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, that he used against Hillary Clinton. And he is playing to the same folks who got him to the White House in the first place.
But things have changed.
He’s the incumbent, with an extensive and controversial record. In 2016, some people figured he couldn’t be worse than Clinton, so why not give him a shot? After all, he would probably tone down the rhetoric and act “presidential” once he got into the White House, they figured. His “what do you have to lose?” message seemed appealing to some.
But after almost four years of daily chaos, suggestions about using a disinfectant to “clean” people’s lungs, adolescent bullying of his adversaries (as well as those who work for him), repeated exaggerations and lies, and efforts to divide the country (and to separate us from many of our long-term allies), “what do you have to lose?” sounds like a less compelling battle cry.
Trump now trails badly against Biden, according to polling averages, as well as the most highly regarded surveys.
A May 28-June 2 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll put Trump’s job approval rating at 45 percent, with 53 percent disapproving of his performance — roughly where it has been for months, even years. The survey also found that a stunning 47 percent of respondents “strongly disapproved” of his performance.
In addition, Trump’s personal appeal remains weak. A substantial 45 percent of respondents said they had “very negative” feelings toward him, compared to 26 percent who had “very negative” feelings for Biden, and 18 percent who felt that way toward Obama.
When matched against Biden on a ballot test, Trump trailed by 7 points, 49 percent to 42 percent.
All about him
Most importantly, the 2020 contest is primarily a referendum on the president. And that is a disaster for Trump.
Yes, things could change. A surge in the economy could help him at the margins, though a good economy in 2018 didn’t keep him from costing his party 40 seats in the House. He could (and probably will) successfully demonize Biden more, driving up the challenger’s negatives.
But Trump will always fall back on the strategy that he thinks won him the White House in 2016 and that appeals to his view of what it means to be “powerful” — appear strong, mock his opponent as weak, blame China, the FBI, the World Health Organization and NATO for anything and everything, and brand Biden and the Democrats as socialists, criminals and liars.
His messages will resonate with many of those who have stuck by him since Election Day in 2016. But there is no evidence that he has broadened his appeal or grown his coalition. He is forced into the same electoral map that handed him the presidency four years ago. But this time, the map is looking much more difficult for him.
Between now and November, we can probably count on Trump going back to his large rallies filled with voters who want his kind of “entertainment.” They want him to attack the media, blame China, insult James Comey, Biden, Jim Mattis and anyone who gets under his skin. He will oblige because he loves the cheering and the fawning from Vice President Mike Pence.
But even as Trump attacks Biden and tries to turn the election from a referendum and into a choice, he will inevitably make the 2020 race about himself. Because everything must always be about him. And that is the Democrats’ ace in the hole for November.