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Donald Trump Doesn’t Have a Second Act

Defeated by the pandemic and bereft of ideas, the president’s pathetic nostalgia tour staggers to the end of the line.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Here we finally are—on the cusp of what, after many false alarms, really might be the beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s presidency. But given ample reasons to remain uneasy about what will happen next week, we might turn instead to recalling a few sure things about the way the Trump campaign, now mostly over, has gone. Trump’s unpopularity made reelection an uphill climb even before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, which is worsening with the encroachment of colder weather and the winter months. Trump and his strategists ultimately did little over the course of the year to help matters, and nothing about their bizarre late turn toward material on Joe Biden’s son Hunter suggests that it will be able to buoy their electoral hopes.

Trump can’t really be faulted for not thinking or planning ahead. He was impeached for a convoluted effort to surface some dirt about Hunter that began in the middle of last year—an effort that was probably given an unwitting assist by Democrats in their decision to try him exclusively for it. The trial has been mostly forgotten, and for a while it seemed like Hunter Biden would be, too. Trump was happy to mention him here and there afterward in his speeches and interviews, but the campaign eventually shifted to a more direct line of attack: that Joe Biden is an old man who is sure to hand over the reins to more able, and more radical, figures on the left if elected. Inshallah, as Biden now says.

But Biden—a fully known quantity to the electorate after eight years as vice president, a position he was offered to reassure moderates and conservatives about Obama—has given voters little reason to believe that Trump’s portrayal is accurate. As protests against police violence erupted across the country in late spring, the dog whistles sounded louder and the charges against him became more specific. Biden, Trump alleged, was an antifa sympathizer unwilling to denounce rioters and looters and certain to allow the flow of violent undesirables into America’s suburbs.

To the surprise and probable dismay of centrists eager for reasons to condemn left-wing activists, that message, as far as we can tell, has totally failed. Earlier this month, a Politico/Morning Consult poll found that voters still regard Trump as more of an extremist than Biden. And Trump’s persistence with it over the summer, even as the polls continued to slide away from him, seemed to indicate a fully broken campaign. The notion that he’s a political genius has always been silly and unfounded, but the ineptitude of the Republican political machine supporting him—a vast network of old hands, hacks, and pundits sadly well versed in the dark arts of reactionary political messaging—has been a bit surprising to witness these past few weeks. Many liberal and left commentators, this writer included, assumed there would be an abrupt pivot away from direct attacks on Biden and an effort, animated by racism, sexism, and Trump’s favorite sociocultural anxieties, to shift attention toward more vulnerable targets—more tangents about the Squad, perhaps, or a full-court press against Kamala Harris.

So far, those assumptions have proven totally wrong. Trump references AOC every now and then, and his supporters and surrogates have taken jabs at Harris’s name and personality. But for the most part, Donald Trump is finishing out this campaign exactly as he began—not just in the sense that he began this particular year talking about Hunter Biden but also in the sense that this campaign has been reduced to a cargo-cult-like repetition of the final weeks of the last one, in 2016. A laptop with supposedly damning material has been produced. The contents of supposedly damning emails are being published. An evidently critical figure—one Tony Bobulinski—has been brought to a debate and is being paraded around the conservative press to talk about what the Bidens have supposedly been up to. And the formal messaging is, again, being undergirded by viral nonsense.

It should be said, though, that while the yammering about Burisma and China bears a resemblance to the talk about Uranium One and all the rest in 2016, the attacks on Hunter have been given a strange and pathetic character all their own by a fixation on his struggles with addiction and the affection and support Biden has given him. One widely mocked tweet from conservative television host John Cardillo last week featured a photo of Biden tenderly kissing Hunter. “Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?” Thousands replied that it did.

What’s going on here? You could talk yourself into thinking there might be a touch of logic to it—perhaps the campaign, finally convinced that the identity political material had failed them over the summer, decided to take on another line of attack that would still animate the base without alienating moderates upset about Trump’s bigotry quite so much. But there’s no real reason to suppose there’s an actual plan—it’s more likely that Trump simply believes he can win by transplanting as many of 2016’s conditions as he can into a completely different political situation with a completely different opponent on the ballot. It isn’t working: The public already considers him dishonest and is disinclined to believe the allegations he’s made; he doesn’t have half a leg to stand on as far as corruption and nepotism are concerned; and, most importantly, the coronavirus is at the top of voters’ minds. Every moment Trump isn’t speaking about the pandemic and what he intends to do about it is likely a moment wasted.

There’s probably no harsher indictment of Trump’s closing strategy than the fact that more Republicans are beginning to back away from him. In a telling interview with Politico earlier this month, Senator Thom Tillis, who’s struggling to overtake a Democratic challenger embroiled in a sex scandal in North Carolina, sold his candidacy as an opportunity to ensure the Senate remains an obstacle for a Biden presidency. “The best check on a Biden presidency is for Republicans to have a majority in the Senate,” he said. “And I do think ‘checks and balances’ does resonate with North Carolina voters.” And in a recent interview with Axios, Ted Cruz, one of the many Republicans clearly looking forward to 2024, openly dismissed the attacks on Hunter. “One of Biden’s best points was when he said, ‘All of these attacks back and forth about my family and his family, they don’t matter—what matters is your family,’” he told Axios’s Jonathan Swan. “I don’t think it moves a single voter.”

We’re at a point, though, where what does or doesn’t move voters might matter less than the difficulties and obstructions that could determine whether their votes are counted. And all Trump’s saying about Hunter Biden certainly matters less than what he’s saying about Election Day. “It would be very very proper and very nice,” he told reporters on Tuesday,  “if a winner were declared on November 3, instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate—and I don’t believe that that’s by our laws.” Neither, evidently, does Brett Kavanaugh, who, on Monday,  issued a concurring opinion on the Supreme Court ending a court-ordered extension of Wisconsin’s absentee ballot deadline. States, he argued, have an interest in avoiding “the chaos and suspicions of impropriety that can ensue if thousands of absentee ballots flow in after election day and potentially flip the results of an election.”

Never mind the fact that the results of an election can’t actually be “flipped” before all the votes have even been counted; this is exactly the argument Trump is fundamentally banking on. And it may make sense to read the turn toward dead-end drivel about Hunter Biden as the empty static of a campaign that no longer believes it actually has to win—a meaningless flourish stylizing a trust fall, Trump hopes, into the waiting arms of the Republican Party and the institutions it dominates. We’ll find out soon enough whether they’ll actually catch him.