What Donald Trump is doing wrong in the US election campaign

Rather than pursuing a strategy to win in November, he is laying the ground for a possible defeat

"Nobody likes me," US President Donald Trump complained last week at a purported media briefing that became a political rally and demonstration of how not to behave during the coronavirus pandemic. His supporters gathered around enthusiastically, with few face masks and little social distancing.

"Why don't I have a high approval rating?" he asked, "it can only be my personality. That's all."

Despite the temptation to deem this a moment of lucidity, his personality, while problematic, is decidedly not all.

The President and his campaign are in a full-blown panic, and it shows.

Just three months before the November 3 election, his poll numbers are in freefall. His personality may not be helping, but what's really at work are the issues most Americans will vote on: healthcare and jobs.

In both cases, he's in big trouble.

Mr Trump used to enjoy taunting audiences, saying “you may not like me, but you have to vote for me” for some, usually economic, reason. Those days are over.

With less than 4 per cent of the world's population, the US accounts for about 25 per cent of coronavirus infections. Most European states are reopening, and were never hit as badly. But Americans aren't welcome to visit them. Even most developing countries have fared better.

The US was well positioned to withstand such an outbreak, but obviously suffered an extreme failure of leadership at the national level.

That much has been apparent all along. However, the details are becoming clearer over time. A remarkable report in Vanity Fair outlines how an ad hoc team led by Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law and all-purpose surrogate, were, predictably, at the nexus of this failure.

The group was made up of executives, friends and acquaintances, virtually none of whom had any relevant experience, but who were nonetheless tasked with developing a national coronavirus-testing programme.

They did indeed craft a plan. But in the spring, Mr Kushner, Mr Trump and others suddenly decided to drop it altogether, believing that the virus was about to fade in the summer heat or, as the President kept insisting, to disappear magically altogether.

The report confirms that the decision was deliberately made to set up all 50 states in a "Hunger Games" competition for resources, equipment and planning, with virtually no federal leadership. And, the report makes clear, the primary intention was to shift responsibility away from the White House and on to governors and local officials.

The initial impact of the coronavirus was clearly a force majeure disaster, for which no one can be reasonably blamed. But by the time Mr Kushner abandoned his testing plan, and Mr Trump began tweeting about "liberating" Democratic-led states engaging in mitigation policies and politicising and stigmatising masks and social distancing, blame no longer became so ambiguous.

Mr Trump is still at it, even as the virus hits his own supporters in rural and Republican-majority states, not only refusing to model responsible behaviour but actively promoting a quack doctor, while his White House and congressional allies attack the most respected American public health officials.

The quack, Stella Immanuel, maintains that hydroxychloroquine is a "cure" for Covid-19 and masks are unnecessary, assertions that Mr Trump apparently likes. But he seemed taken aback when reporters informed him she also insists alien DNA is used in vaccines and common diseases are caused by romantic encounters with spirit beings.

With the virus raging, the US economy is being concomitantly hammered. On Thursday, the Commerce Department released data outlining the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression of the 1930s: a breathtaking 32.9 per cent of annual gross domestic product.

Mr Trump's immediate response was to propose postponing the upcoming election, which he cannot do, and was rejected across the political spectrum.

In recent days, he appears to have been hoping to shift public attention to civic unrest in Portland and Seattle, but both protesters and local authorities seem to have quickly understood his game and declined to play it, by restoring a large measure of calm.

Anyway, “law and order" was never going to salvage his campaign in a jobs-and-health election.

On health care, not only has his administration botched, almost willfully, federal leadership of the pandemic, it is also still actively trying to strip health insurance from tens of millions of Americans by aggressively suing to revoke the Obamacare programme while proposing no alternative.

Next week, most emergency payments that have kept small businesses afloat and people in their homes are due to expire. Democrats in the House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion additional disaster relief bill. Republicans in the Senate are bickering and have passed nothing.

Mr Trump's party in the Senate refuses to govern, while his White House is similarly unwilling to meet its responsibilities. As President, he will inevitably be blamed for the consequences.

No wonder, then, that he has resorted to a steady drumbeat of dire but preposterous predictions that November will see “the most inaccurate and fraudulent election in history” and, especially, that voting by mail, which is common, will somehow suddenly be a disaster. Meanwhile, one of his allies is gutting the US postal service, which may help ensure maximum chaos.

It's all strongly reminiscent of his handling of the pandemic. When he realised a cataclysm was unstoppable, he simply refused to accept reality or responsibility – and he still does, blithely dismissing the 150,000 US death toll as “it is what it is".

With just a few weeks to go, the President knows he's likely to lose. But instead of campaigning to get enough people to vote for him, he is focused on discrediting the election well in advance.

So Mr Trump could well become the first US President to attempt to refuse to leave office even if he is clearly defeated. He seems to be setting the stage for that, and is preparing to manage defeat rather than secure victory.

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

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National