Daniel DePetris

Can ‘Teflon Trump’ survive his biggest challenge yet?

Can 'Teflon Trump' survive his biggest challenge yet?
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At the beginning of the year, the odds on president Donald Trump winning re-election this November were 60-40 in his favour. After all, the rule is that the incumbent wins when the U.S. economy is in rock solid shape. Americans react to job growth like bees react to honey: with excitement and appreciation. It was a big reason why Ronald Reagan swept the country with a 49-state win in 1984 and why Bill Clinton won a second term with a healthy margin in 1996. Precedent suggests that regardless of his long-winded (some would say, nutty) press conferences, grievance-filled Twitter account, and impeachment asterisk, Trump would have a very good chance at continuing the trend.

All of that is now out the window. The coronavirus epidemic that continues to claim the lives of thousands of Americans every week has cratered the economy, jeopardised his electoral position in battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, and led Republican lawmakers, pollsters, and operatives to doubt his prospects. Over 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance in four weeks. Like the many workers who have been furloughed or who have lost their jobs due to the virus, Trump is itching to reopen the country as quickly as possible. It doesn't take a Ph.D in economics to see why; the congressional budget office projects the unemployment rate will reach close to 14 per cent in the second quarter, a number that hasn´t been registered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics since records were first kept in 1948.

So if Trump was hoping to rely on good economic numbers for his campaign, those plans are now completely ruined. Which begs the question: what does Trump run on?

The Trump campaign, the GOP's political machinery, and the Republican party at large appear to be divided into two camps. The first – let´s call them the traditionalists – want Trump to focus his time over the next six months on defending his record, stressing his decisiveness (like agreeing to a China travel ban during the opening stage of the coronavirus crisis) and drilling home a message in the battleground states about his unique ability to rebuild the American economy. Trump himself teased this message during one of his coronavirus news briefings at the White House: 'We built the greatest economy in the world. I'll do it a second time.' Plus, who wants to hear negative campaign ads when there so much negativity every day, anyway?

The other camp, 'the attackers', wants the Trump campaign to go full-throttle on Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee who has been confined to his basement doing livestream television interviews and webcasts for donors. The rationale is as follows: because the country is in such sadness, angst, and turmoil and so many Americans are barely holding themselves together, beaming the lights on Trump's face would do more harm than good. Better to re-run the 2016 Trump campaign playbook on Hillary Clinton by typecasting Biden as an out-of-touch, career politician and creature of the Washington political establishment who has a terrific resume but a failed record. GOP ad-makers are already spending millions of dollars in swing states like Florida trying to connect Biden with China, as in 'Joe Biden is too soft on the Chinese Communist party to hold them accountable for unleashing coronavirus upon the world'. Biden's campaign is prepared for the onslaught, releasing a memo to supporters highlighting the Trump administration´s lack of preparation and inadequate policy measures.

As is often the case in politics, Trump is likely to split the difference. Because he never misses an opportunity to boast about his abilities and accomplishments, the president will continue claiming that he – and only he – possesses the strength, fortitude, and leadership capacity to save America from its first depression in 90 years. Yet Trump also revels in the New Yorker stereotype by being brash, abrasive, and downright nasty to people who cross him. In the little over four years he has been in the business of politics, Trump has slayed one opponent after another by unapologetically strangling each of them with crude nicknames; sensationalised his successes; and branding himself as a no-nonsense, anti-elite populist for regular people. Through it all, he has also managed to survive scandal after scandal, including the Mueller investigation, payoffs to pornstars, white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, the firing of various officials, impeachment, and a strange affinity for unproven drugs and medical remedies.

Can the president survive America's worst public health and economic catastrophe in decades, all the while winning re-election? If he pulls it off, Donald Trump will truly be the 'Teflon Don'.