I’ve been thinking about history, and what history can and cannot teach us about current events.
One thing history ought to teach us is that nations, politics, and the course of events are not just shaped by the plans laid by people in power. As often as not, the trajectory of history is shaped by how the people in power respond — or react — to events they hadn’t planned for.
Presidents more often than not are remembered for how they dealt with unexpected crises rather than how well they carried out their campaign promises. Are they able to adjust their thinking as situations demand, or do they remain stuck in their ideological playbooks — think Herbert Hoover’s inability to deal with the Depression. See also Peter Baker, Presidents Form Their Legacies in Crises.
Trump has been in a uniquely bad position since, in fact, he doesn’t even do plans. His only objective is his own glory. He has more or less lumbered through three exhausting years in the White House by taking credit for good news and blaming others for bad, whether he had a hand in events or not. He’s been sheltered from the consequences of his own actions, or inactions as the case may be, by congressional Republicans and the right-wing media infrastructure.
But now the nation has been hit by massive crises, and people are seeing for themselves that Trump is failing miserably to address them. He can’t adjust his thinking because he doesn’t think; he just reacts, and all of his reactions are either self-protecting or self-aggrandizing. He cannot put his emotional neediness aside to just do what is required any more than he is likely to master quantum physics or the title role in Verdi’s Otello.
And in this, he is showing us that the tides of events, and history, sometimes are too big to be subdued by propaganda and gaslighting.
President Trump’s advisers are letting it be known that he is seriously considering a televised national address on race and national unity. When your paroxysms of laughter subside, consider the serious point here: This reveals just how badly Trump misread the politics of this moment, to a potentially fatal degree.
You know that if he does give such an address, it will consist of anodyne phrases strung together by his staff in no discernible order and clumsily read by Trump from a teleprompter in the weird sing-song tone he adopts when he’s trying to sound serious. It will mean nothing and accomplish nothing, but the Trump campaign and its Republican enablers will claim he “addressed” racism, as if it were just a box that needed to be checked. And then Trump will prompty resume tweeting juvenile insults of everyone in the world who doesn’t adore him enough.
A typical view of Trump’s proposed address:
Spare us, please! Trump knows nothing about race or national unity, plus he can’t read a teleprompter, so it will be like another hostage video… https://t.co/HdG5bcPWkA
— John Dean (@JohnWDean) June 8, 2020
See Pretty Much No One Thinks It’s A Good Idea For Trump To Give A Speech On Racism And Unity. Nearly any other person who has served as POTUS in the nation’s history would have given such an address already. Indeed, presidential nominee Joe Biden has already given such an address. But Trump cannot rise to this moment because Trump is massively unsuited to be president at all. I doubt the man could competently manage a WalMart, to be honest. Yes he has owned a lot of businesses, many of which failed, but there’s no indication he has ever been all that hands-on in running any of them. All his life he’s just thrown his daddy’s money at walls to see if it sticks.
Back to Greg Sargent:
What’s been exposed is this: Trump simply will not, or cannot, operate out of any conception of what’s good for the country — the whole country. Faced with enormous crises, he has tried to pretend they don’t exist, or has tried gaslighting us into disbelieving our own eyes and ears about them, or has used them as occasions to demagogue and incite hatreds in ways he believes will help his reelection.
This takes us back to history. Trump and his team reacted to the protests that followed George’s Floyd’s killing as if it were still 1968. They assumed they coujld invoke “lawnorder” and call the protesters “thugs,” and the white voters of America would rally behind them. But that hasn’t worked this time. And even as the administration tentatively suggests that maybe Trump could address racism and national unity, administration officials continue to deny there is systemic racism in law enforcement. Which means Trump’s people can’t address racism and national unity, because they don’t know what those words mean.
And this is what happened when Trump learned that Mitt Romney marched with Black Lives Matter:
Tremendous sincerity, what a guy. Hard to believe, with this kind of political talent, his numbers would “tank” so badly in Utah! https://t.co/KqHsHmSRKo
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 8, 2020
In fact, Romney’s approval numbers in Utah are looking pretty good — 56 percent approve, 42 percent disapprove, according to a recent poll. According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump nationwide is currently at 41.4 percent approve, 54.3 percent disapprove.
We’ve all heard that history repeats itself, but what does that mean, exactly? History does show us repeating patterns involving class, poverty, various forms of tribalism, greed, war, colonialism, etc. But at the same time, no nation, society or culture remains static for very long. Everything is always changing, even if in small and subtle ways. So while we’re dealing with many of the same issues as in 1968, it ain’t 1968 any more. A lot really has changed. In many ways, we’re all marching into a great unknown; the patterns of the past are not necessarily going to hold.
It’s too soon to say that Trump’s chances for re-election are dead — events may yet occur that change the current trajectory — but it appears they’re about to start circling the drain. Do see Jonathan Last at The Bulwark, The 2020 Cake Is (Almost) Baked.
See also Matt Yglesias, Joe Biden has a really big lead in the polls.
A Monday morning CNN poll showed Joe Biden with a staggering 14-point lead over President Trump as the electorate’s stated level of concern with “race relations” soars and the former vice president is seen as much better equipped to handle the issue.
Winning the popular vote by such a large margin would likely mean Democrats overperformed in battleground states and in places like Georgia, Iowa, and Texas that would put the Senate clearly in play.
And while the CNN poll is just one poll, and something of an outlier at that, there is now a very clear trend in national polling — Biden was winning before the outbreak of massive national protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, and that lead has gotten bigger.
Maybe not 14 points bigger, but bigger than it was before and clearly larger than any lead Hillary Clinton ever held in the 2016 campaign.
Events are driving us all now. At this point the scope and depth of Trump’s incompetence and unfitness are too visible to hide, but where the tides are taking us is hard to say.
Gabriel Sherman writes at Vanity Fair that Trump has been calling people and prodding them to admit that the polls are all wrong.
“He’s asking people to agree with him that the polls are biased. But no one is telling him what he wants to hear,” said a Republican briefed on the calls. Republicans know how bad things are, but the party still believes sticking with Trump is the best bet for holding the Senate. Last week, Mitch McConnell told Republican senators that they couldn’t abandon Trump, according to a source. McConnell reminded Republicans that former New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte lost her 2016 reelection bid after breaking with Trump over the Access Hollywood video.
Hey Mitch — it ain’t 2016 any more, either.