You knew the night he was elected that the presidency of Donald J. Trump would be like none we have ever seen or read about in the history books. Three and a half years later, Trump’s fundamental promise to challenge the legitimacy of an encrusted, unresponsive, and unaccountable three-headed monster – the political, media, and academic establishment – has led to an unbroken string of strikingly controversial utterances and game-changing policies.
And now, as if to bring his unique presidency full circle, Trump is faced with another singular challenge which threatens everything he has accomplished. He is the first president in almost a century to enter the heart of his re-election campaign as the underdog. The polls claim an almost double-digit deficit for the president, and gamblers have established his opponent as the clear favorite with the election now less than four months away.
Make no mistake. If the presidential election had been conducted anytime from early February to early March, or perhaps before that, there is little doubt Trump would have been victorious. Peace and prosperity had him on a glide path to a second term. Democrats had employed every weapon at their disposal to take him down and repeatedly failed, disgracing themselves with fantastical accusations – and with a series of presidential debates displaying their increasingly radical bent. Remember the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, taxpayer-funded health care for illegals, “reproductive justice for transgenders,” et al.
The question now is whether the voters will remember because the double-barreled assault of disease and open revolution in the streets has thrown this election into a shockingly different context. The vibrant economy and precedent-breaking foreign policy produced on the watch of the 45th president have now been overwhelmed by the urgent need to mitigate a ridiculously infectious bat virus while controlling a metastasizing mob out to overturn our very way of life. And there is only so much Trump can do when Democrats are in control of every city under siege, and are openly refusing to restore the rule of law under the assumption that, unlike the unbroken string of failed attempts to remove Trump with blunt force and transparent lies, the chaos will finally sink him.
There is no understating the challenge before President Donald J. Trump. He is staring directly down the barrel of a loaded weapon. But some perspective is also necessary. Twin challenges of this magnitude would be no less daunting for any president. Not one of the events triggering this seeming turn in the election calculus – COVID-19, the George Floyd killing, and the violent aftermath – can be laid at the feet of this president, but it is all happening on his watch. Thus, it is ultimately his responsibility to respond under circumstances which would sink almost any person, not to mention president, into a dark night of the soul.
After not even expecting to win the 2016 election by most accounts, Trump spent every waking hour in the White House trying to repair and revitalize the American economy and had the numbers to prove his success. His rising tide lifted the boats of every class and race. He vanquished the ISIS caliphate, called out NATO, China, Iran, and the illegal immigration industry – and the list goes on.
But now, all he gets for his efforts is this lousy question: Sure, you can build an economy, shake up the disgraced status quo, and keep us out of wars. But can you beat a virulent virus and tamp down a rebellion?
Think of the things that have slipped completely out of Trump’s control. He can’t stop the virus. He can’t keep the country locked down. He can’t stop Democrats from allowing the left-wing mayhem to continue. The media smells blood in the water as never before, academia is strutting in delight that America is in the throes of their desired cultural revolution, and now corporate America is surrendering to the public coercion of an openly Marxist political organization masquerading as a racial justice movement. Plus, the many problems surrounding the president’s weak, aging opponent seem to have been subsumed by the twin crises.
Even George Washington would have trouble securing a second term under these circumstances.
To give you an idea of how rare it is for a sitting president to be the underdog in his race for re-election, only once in the last century has a popularly elected president been predicted to lose his race for a second term (Harry Truman was expected to lose in 1948, but had assumed the office when FDR died. Gerald Ford lost in 1976 after becoming president upon the resignation of Richard Nixon). That one instance was in 1932, when the nation had fallen into the Great Depression. Herbert Hoover seemed a certain loser and was trounced by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Only two sitting presidents have since failed to secure a second term – Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992 – but neither was considered an underdog. The ultimate winners of those elections, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, came from behind and scored resounding upset victories.
But perhaps the challenge before Trump is most similar to that facing President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968. Following a landslide victory in 1964 in the wake of the JFK assassination, LBJ slipped into a political abyss. He was hemmed in on all sides – refusing to be the first American president to lose a war while thousands died futilely in the jungles of Vietnam and revolutionary fervor overtook the land following the twin assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. LBJ’s response was to quit. He shocked the world by refusing to seek a second term. The major difference is that LBJ dug his own grave by escalating the war, while Trump did nothing to cause his own present misfortune – unless you are among the small minority who believe his response to an unprecedented pandemic was wildly off-target.
But no one, least of all Trump himself, is playing the violin and lamenting a turn of events which would test the mettle of even the greatest of world leaders. He neither seeks nor receives pity from the voters. He has battled uphill his entire life and overcome every obstacle. But even the challenge of his bare-bones campaign of 2016, bereft of support outside his rabid base, pales in comparison to the obstacle course facing him between now and November 3.
On the other hand (and there always is one), we might think back to 1988, when a triumphant Michael Dukakis left the Democratic convention in August with a 17 point lead over then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, and lost by eight points. Political fortunes have been known to change in the twinkling of an eye. The many advantages of incumbency are real, and this president, left with little choice but to fight like hell as he always has, made clear in what could become the defining speech of his campaign at Mount Rushmore that he will stake his claim for a second term on a ringing defense of western civilization – indeed, civilization itself.
Four years ago, there was an undeniable sense of excitement and possibility that surrounded Trump’s upstart bid for the highest office in the land. This time, the president and his supporters are facing re-election with an almost grim determination to prevail through the most trying of circumstances. The voters of this country are exhausted, scared, and confused enough to conflate, for now, radical Marxists with legitimate warriors for racial justice. The hard left is capitalizing mightily on the rarefied air of public acceptance they have not previously enjoyed. Whether this embrace is fleeting or represents a seismic shift in the nation’s political environment becomes the proverbial $64,000 question.
Will Trump savor the role of underdog as he did in 2016, or will he be done in by the simultaneous withering assaults of a cultural revolution and intractable pandemic – and perhaps his own personality? Is the so-called silent majority of decent, God-fearing Americans still a majority, and will they remain silent? We may have no idea until September or October, or even Election Day itself, if the country will turn its apparent acceptance of the radical assault on our culture by Black Lives Matter into ultimate rejection and extend the Trump era through 2024.
The life and times of Donald J. Trump reads like a novel. People will be discussing and debating for decades his meteoric rise to fame and fortune, how he was brought low by recession, only to rise again and reach the heights of influence and power. And with this fighter who refuses to cower in the White House – love him or hate him – everyone on all sides knows that the last chapter of this gripping tale has yet to be written.
Read more from Tim Donner.