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Trump’s Greatest Liability Is His Own Incumbency

The president’s latest reelection strategy is to darkly warn voters about the chaos he created.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, Trump campaign adviser Boris Epshteyn posted a video on Twitter that appears to show masked protesters marching outside a graffiti-covered federal building in Portland. The 43-second clip is unremarkable among footage that’s emerged from the unrest in Oregon’s largest city, save for the conspicuous absence of any marked or unmarked police officers in it. “This would be Joe Biden’s America,” Epshteyn added in his Twitter post. “It’s a very scary place.”

As numerous Twitter users quickly pointed out, however, Epshteyn’s clip quite literally depicts Donald Trump’s America. This is something of a recurring theme for Trumpworld as it retools its strategy for the November election. In recent weeks, Trump and his allies have cited protests and clashes in major American cities as a warning of what could come if Biden wins in November. Left unsaid is the inescapable fact that the protests and demonstrations are already happening under Trump’s watch, and in some cases because of him.

Trump originally envisioned his reelection campaign as part victory lap, part Faustian bargain. “Make America Great Again” became “Keep America Great.” Ignore the corruption and bigotry, and your 401k will keep growing. But his failures to contain the coronavirus pandemic—which has killed at least 140,000 Americans and sent the U.S. into a brutal recession—and his inflammatory reaction to the George Floyd protests threw that plan into disarray. In recent weeks, Trump abandoned any pretense that he possessed either a second-term policy agenda or a positive vision for the country’s future. Instead, he’s pinned his electoral hopes on demonizing Joe Biden and Democratic elected officials.

Trump’s self-inflicted wounds have reportedly left aides wondering whether he actually wants a second term in office. But this question misses the political dynamics that brought him to this point. Trump’s greatest liability in the November election isn’t really his record, or his flaws, or his policy agenda. It’s the simple, immutable fact that he’s already the president of the United States. Incumbency, the greatest asset that any other presidential candidate could possess, is this one’s greatest weakness.

It’s well established that presidents tend to benefit from incumbency. Of the 11 presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt who were elected to their first term in office, all but Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush managed to win a second term. (Lyndon B. Johnson declined to run for a second full term, and Gerald Ford never won a presidential election.) Reelection was always going to be difficult for Trump. He only won in 2016 by securing narrow margins in a few key states while receiving three million fewer overall votes than Hillary Clinton. Seemingly unable to get past his resentment toward those who didn’t vote for him, Trump made little effort to expand his coalition while in office. Nevertheless, many observers in the Before Times still assumed that he would reap some electoral benefit from already being president.

Then the pandemic and the protests upended Trump’s case for reelection. Boasting about a 2017 tax-cut package or a rising stock market is unlikely to sway most of the millions of voters who’ve lost their jobs in recent months or know someone who died from Covid-19. This perhaps explains why polls show Trump losing considerable ground among voters on economic issues. A Washington Post-ABC News survey released this week found that he and Biden are effectively tied among voters when it comes to trust in their economic policies. Those numbers may grow even worse for the president if Congress fails to extend or supplement federal relief measures that are set to expire at the month’s end.

Without a positive message to draw upon, Trump is pouring all of his energy into painting Biden as a cognitively impaired figurehead of a far-left movement that wants to abolish cops and suburbs. White grievance politics helped Trump secure victory in 2016, so it’s understandable that he hopes to harness them again in 2020. “I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country,” he said when accepting the nomination speech four years ago. “I will work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job properly done. In this race for the White House, I am the law and order candidate.”

This theme took him all the way to his inaugural address, which struck an unusually divisive and negative tone for the occasion. “But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential,” Trump said. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

But this strategy faces multiple shortcomings in 2020. First, it’s a wildly inaccurate description of Biden’s policy stances. Second, Biden is perhaps the least convincing avatar of a purported leftist plot to destroy white America that Democrats could have put forth. (Discussions of Biden’s cognitive state have also, thus far, largely revived debates around Trump’s own mental faculties instead.) Third, it’s hard to claim a law-and-order mantle when you’re granting clemency to former aides who lied to Congress on your behalf and overseeing a Justice Department that corruptly protects the White House’s friends from consequences.

Perhaps most importantly, however, it’s impossible for Trump to claim the dog-whistle meaning of “law-and-order politics” while Fox News is broadcasting wall-to-wall coverage of riots in major American cities. Media Matters for America’s Matt Gertz noted earlier this week that the president and his favorite news network appear to be locked in a strange feedback loop, where footage of protests on Fox inspires Trump to launch a federal crackdown that only provides more footage of protests. The subconscious goal by both the president and the network is to attribute this violence to the cities’ Democratic leaders, as if to say that Trump is all that stands between the mob and his voters.

This dynamic is dangerous for Americans on its own terms. I also suspect that this feedback loop is more harmful than helpful for the president himself. His first campaign took place amid an earlier wave of public reckoning with police violence and systemic racism. Trump pitched himself as a way to suppress that reckoning and to reverse the gains and achievements made by the nation’s first black president. To some extent, he succeeded. Colin Kaepernick lost his job. The Justice Department under Jeff Sessions and Bill Barr largely abandoned police reform. Rush Limbaugh, the archfoe of political correctness, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union address.

A more competent leader would have taken steps to confront these various challenges: by wielding the federal government’s full power and influence to contain the pandemic, by urging Congress to approve more consistent direct aid to Americans to offset the economic damage, and by trying to address the nation’s racial inequities, if only superficially. Instead, Trump undermined the national pandemic response and took a sluggish approach to economic assistance for struggling Americans. Perhaps the defining moment of his response to last month’s civil unrest was his retreat to an underground bunker while protesters gathered outside the White House. A Trump voter who expected him to maintain America’s racial status quo can only conclude that he abysmally failed.

Ironically, what was once Trump’s greatest political victory might turn out to be a curse. During the impeachment proceedings in January and February, Trump and his allies told the Republican-led Senate that removing him from office would be tantamount to deciding the upcoming November election. I noted at the time that in past impeachment proceedings, removal from office and disqualification from office were decided in two separate votes. In theory, 20 Republican senators could have voted to convict and remove Trump from office, then voted against permanently disqualifying him from holding it again. Trump would still have been free to run for reelection, leaving the final judgment on his political fate to the American people.

Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of Trump’s fateful call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. I doubt that Trump regrets trying to extort a U.S. ally for domestic political gain, even after the bruising impeachment battle that it sparked. But he may yet regret that he didn’t lose that battle in the Senate, after all. If he had, he could’ve spent the last five months as a political outsider once more, unburdened by incumbency, while President Mike Pence absorbed any blame for the pandemic or the protests. Instead, Trump must now confront a foe that he’s tried to elude for his entire life: the consequences of his own actions.