Coronavirus pandemic rains on Donald Trump's re-election parade

US president is battling the economic fallout of a mismanaged health crisis, as well as widespread social upheaval

US President Donald Trump wears a face mask in public for the first time during a visit to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in Bethesda, Maryland, on July 11, 2020. Reuters
US President Donald Trump wears a face mask in public for the first time during a visit to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Centre in Bethesda, Maryland, on July 11, 2020. Reuters

“I am not losing to Joe Biden,” US President Donald Trump reportedly told his then campaign manager, Brad Parscale, in April as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged American towns and cities and significantly diminished his chances of re-election on November 3. Mr Trump used an expletive for emphasis.

Three months on since that conversation was first reported by the Associated Press, Mr Trump’s poll numbers are still plummeting, the pandemic has killed nearly 150,000 lives in the US, Mr Parscale is no longer campaign manager and the Trump team is shifting tactics to try to avoid an electoral defeat in 100 days.

For Mr Trump, 2020 is proving to be a Herculean challenge compared to 2016. Four years ago, the political ascent of the property mogul and TV celebrity was built on slogans such as “America First”, “bring manufacturing jobs back” and “rebuild the military”, and promises to curb immigration and impose tariffs. Now, with unemployment at more than 11 per cent, thousands of manufacturing jobs lost, trade wars and the US military withdrawing troops and assets from Germany, Mr Trump has lost the advantage of running on grandiose promises and is instead being evaluated on his record as an incumbent president.

One hundred days from the election, Mr Trump is privately and publicly blaming the coronavirus for his woes. With more than four million cases reported in the US, Mr Trump says the virus – not his management of the pandemic – is responsible for the downturn. “I built the greatest economy ever built anywhere in the world; not only of this country, anywhere in the world. Until we got hit with the China virus,” Mr Trump told Fox News last week. Privately, self-victimisation is occasionally heard from the president in complaining about the effects of the pandemic on his election chances.

The outbreak is a fork in the road in this election; unemployment shot up from 3.8 per cent in February to 14.4 per cent in April. Popular upheaval in the form of right-wing protests against lockdowns and Black Lives Matter protests against racism have transformed the 2020 election landscape. In Florida, an important swing state that is now the hot spot of the virus, Mr Trump is trailing Mr Biden by 13 points, according to a Quinnipiac poll released last Thursday. In Texas, another Covid-19 hot spot and a state that no Democrat running for president has won since 1976, the Quinnipiac poll shows Mr Biden ahead by one point against Mr Trump.

In poll after poll, Mr Biden has double-digit leads in his views on handling the virus and race relations, and narrowly leads on the economy. Unlike in 2016, when Mr Trump was on the offensive against Hillary Clinton and the political establishment, this time around he is on the defensive, having to explain his reluctance to wear a face mask until July and his calls to slow down testing.

But even with such a lead for Mr Biden, the race is far from over and Mr Trump, who surprised everyone including his own Republican party with his win in 2016, cannot be counted out. William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, describes the Trump campaign as facing “a crisis so pervasive that it threatens to take down not only his presidency but his entire [Republican] party”. The party leadership, according to Vanity Fair, has given Mr Trump until Labour Day (September 7) to steer the sinking ship or risk having Republicans running in key states distance themselves from the president.

Despite his woes, Mr Trump could still turn his campaign around, Mr Galston says. “If a vaccine demonstrates its safety and effectiveness by early fall and new cases begin to drop, the public mood could shift. The president could admit error and change course in both substance and tone.”

The presidential debates could present another opportunity for Mr Trump, given Mr Biden’s meek performance in the Democratic debates to win the party nomination. But with Covid-19 cases increasing, continued protests and no signs yet that a vaccine will be available by November, Mr Trump faces an uphill battle for re-election.

It is a battle that the US president still insists he will win. “You know how many times I have been written off? Do you know how many times I’ve been written off?” Mr Trump asked rhetorically on Fox News before predicting that he will prevail in November.

Updated: July 26, 2020 08:40 AM


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