Donald Trump's coronavirus woes have been made worse by Wisconsin's election

With his poll numbers falling, the president's re-election campaign is evidently getting desperate

TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump speaks during a Coronavirus Task Force press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 18, 2020.  / AFP / JIM WATSON
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Donald Trump just suffered arguably the worst week of his presidency. It is not only that the US reached the watershed of more than 4,500 coronavirus fatalities in 24 hours. More importantly, the Democrats are avoiding the kind of blunders Mr Trump relied on to get into office and is counting on to stay there.

His meteoric political career has been defined by opponents routinely destroying themselves on his behalf.

In the 2016 Republican primaries, an intra-party election process to choose its presidential candidate, the party establishment and other candidates were fixated on blocking Senator Ted Cruz, who they disliked and feared more than Mr Trump. When the dust settled, it was too late. Mr Trump had amassed a huge delegate lead and was well on the way to winning over the party rank-and-file. The Republican leadership never meaningfully resisted his now comprehensive takeover of the party.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton ran against each other for the right to become US president in 2016. AP Photo
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton ran against each other for the right to become US president in 2016. AP Photo

The Democrats, too, and especially the Hillary Clinton campaign, never took Mr Trump seriously enough. This attitude was exemplified by then president Barack Obama's reassurances to concerned US allies that a Trump victory was unimaginable. Mrs Clinton even ignored and took for granted key states such as Wisconsin, where she never campaigned, despite nervous entreaties by her husband, former president Bill Clinton, one of the few leading Democrats to have appreciated the danger Mr Trump truly posed to her White House bid.

Those days are over. No one underestimates Mr Trump anymore. This time the party leadership and the vast majority of Democratic voters have plainly realised that tacking strongly to the left with an avowedly socialist candidate like Bernie Sanders would be a blunder. In striking contrast to their disunity in 2016, they have united behind former vice president Joe Biden, and are building on the centrist and moderate approach that won them a victory in the 2018 mid-terms.

Last week, the last organised divisions evaporated. Mr Sanders suspended his campaign and endorsed Mr Biden. Mr Obama, who vowed not to take sides until the nomination was resolved, strongly endorsed his former vice president. So did Senator Elizabeth Warren, the one-time presidential contender, and several leading Republican activists.

The difficulties Mr Trump will face in dealing with Mr Biden were illustrated by his self-contradictory reactions.

On the one hand, Mr Trump yet again suggested that Mr Sanders, who does not claim this, was somehow cheated and that the Democratic primaries were rigged against him, although he was overwhelmingly defeated at the polls.

On the other hand, Mr Trump and his conservative allies allege that although Mr Biden won, he largely capitulated to Mr Sanders' left-wing policies. As Mr Sanders’ supporters surely understand, this is false, although Democrats in general have moved somewhat to the left. But Mr Trump had his heart set on running against a socialist, so that label, no matter how preposterously, must now be affixed to Mr Biden.

Obviously, this narrative about Democratic leaders simultaneously cheating and capitulating is nonsensical. And the depth of Mr Trump's likely difficulties in November were dramatically illustrated by Tuesday’s Wisconsin election.

The presidential primaries were not the most important races, although Mr Biden's latest overwhelming victory against Mr Sanders secured those crucial endorsements. The main event was a Wisconsin state supreme court election – in many US states, judges are, bizarrely, elected by the public. A Trump-backed Republican incumbent, Daniel Kelly, was expected to win, particularly after Republican legislators and judges effectively forced voters to choose between risking their health or forsaking their vote.

But the Democratic challenger, Jill Karofsky, won by a large margin in a state that typically sees narrow victories on either side. Even if voters were punishing Republicans for their outrageous election shenanigans or the outcome was skewed by greater interest in the Democratic primary, this stunning result suggests that Republicans in general and Mr Trump in particular are in deep trouble in this crucial swing state.

And then there is the coronavirus pandemic. The Trump presidency sailed through three years virtually crisis-free, only to be hit by a maelstrom. The convulsion presents massive challenges but also huge political opportunities.

It wiped out Mr Trump’s main re-election pitch – a strong economy, albeit burdened with vast public and private debt, that he inherited from Mr Obama and extended – yet the pandemic was an extraordinary opportunity for him to rapidly scramble perceptions by improbably uniting the country around his leadership. Americans know they only have one president, and when a major crisis strikes, they overwhelmingly root for their national leader because they love their country.

Unfortunately, Mr Trump does not know how to unite. Dividing is his metier. And he does not know or care about governance, although he is a masterful campaigner. Predictably, then, he produced none of the leadership, in either words or deeds, that could have won him the potential widespread respect and gratitude that was suddenly available.

In the furnace of calamity, Mr Trump could have refashioned himself as a strong and inspiring, or at least effective, leader. To say the least, that has not happened.

He has even struggled to keep his story straight on any aspect of the crisis, including when he was informed about the virus, how seriously to take it, and what his role should and should not be.

Most recently, he abruptly shifted from asserting “total authority” and complaining about a “mutiny” by Democratic state governors, to rejecting any responsibility whatsoever and insisting states must make all key decisions.

Then he attacked Democratic state governments that are following his own social distancing recommendations, ominously tweeting "LIBERATE MINNESOTA!" followed by Michigan and Virginia. None of these states meet his own guidelines for re-opening.

But by siding with angry right-wingers railing against his own mitigation policies and condemning Democratic-led state governments, he is establishing a narrative of blame he may hope will allow him to escape responsibility for this calamitous failure even though there has been no national coronavirus strategy. "State governments failed you, not I," is the emerging message.

Still, Mr Trump’s poll numbers are falling. His campaign just issued a telling letter claiming that Democrats are preparing to "steal the election". That's how bleak his re-election prospects are starting to look.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington