Hillary Rodham Clinton could not stop him, and Robert Mueller so far has landed something less than a fatal blow. So the task of defeating Donald Trump in 2020 may now fall to Ralph Waldo Emerson.
“Every hero,” wrote 19th-century America’s foremost man of letters a century before Trump was born, “becomes a bore at last.”
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And every villain, too, Democrats are urgently hoping from their own vantage point.
So far, however, Trump is beating Emerson in early returns. The raucous chants and cheers of thousands of backers Tuesday night at a rally in Orlando, Fla., where the president formally launched his reelection campaign amid a shower of spirited self-praise and shouted denunciations of his foes, underscored the obvious: The 45th president is hero to some and boor to others, but he is for most Americans anything but a bore.
Four years after he served notice to an incredulous political class that he was not joking — he really intended to run for president and win — Trump has retained his abilities to provoke and thrill, to make soft-spoken people spit and foam, to endlessly entertain that segment of the population that enjoys seeing the other segment in a state of outrage. As the Orlando rally showed, he still sends his partisans into paroxysms of ecstatic devotion. Against all odds, long after one might have supposed he would have surrendered any ability to shock people by defying precedents or shredding old standards of decorum, he still has not lost his ability to surprise.
Above all, he has not lost his ability to make himself the story on command. “I’m done with him,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the other day. Perhaps those words were sincere, but the sentiment has yet to catch on with cable news, or for that matter with most of Pelosi’s fellow Democrats, who loathe Trump on nearly every point but agree with the incumbent on the one most important to him: There is no subject in contemporary politics so deserving of discussion as Trump.
The Florida rally, with a size and enthusiasm calculated to make Joe Biden envious, implicitly raised a key 2020 question: At what point has Trump broken so many norms that he has become the new normal, the status quo he rails so effectively against, and therefore burns away the very source of his appeal?
The reason Trump so far has avoided this fate may be that he is defined by paradox, which in turn creates suspense: No one can confidently say how this story will end.
His reelection prospects put the Trump paradox under a bright light.
Seen in one light, it is easy to imagine Trump once again defying his haters and winning another term. As my colleague Scott Bland notes, when you run the numbers on some of the most influential models favored by economists and political scientists to predict incumbent performance, they typically point to his reelection.
These models — such as one by scholars at Yale University and another by Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz — rely in either full or heavy measure on economic performance. Not only is unemployment low, 3.6 percent, but popular perceptions of the economy are strong: 71 percent of respondents to a Quinnipiac University poll last month said the economy was excellent or good, the highest rating since 2001. In Orlando, Trump called it “perhaps the greatest economy we have had in this history of this country.” Steven Rattner, the financier and former Obama administration official, recently summarized the models in The New York Times. The bottom line was clear: Ordinarily, presidents just don’t lose in these circumstances.
But in another light, it is hard to imagine how Trump could possibly win. The current approval rating average from the FiveThirtyEight site shows Trump at 42.5 percent approving versus 53.2 percent disapproving. While Trump’s approval rating has a solid floor, thanks to ardent supporters, it also has a seemingly impenetrable ceiling—never over 50 percent. Ordinarily presidents just don’t win in these circumstances.
Of course, none of the operatives trying to reelect Trump or trying to beat him have any confidence that they know what “ordinary” means anymore.
Nor, likely, would any of Trump’s three immediate predecessors likely answer the question with much confidence. The Trump moment did not spring out of nowhere. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all have experience trying to navigate around, and sometimes exploit, the tribal, hyper-partisan, conspiracy-minded politics which vaulted Trump to power, and which he now expects will keep him there. But they surely are all confounded by how things they thought were rules of the game so far have not applied to Trump.
Clinton would have loved to fire hostile FBI director Louis Freeh every bit as much as Trump wanted to fire FBI director James Comey. But only Trump did it. Clinton survived the investigations of his term by insisting that he was rigorously “compartmentalizing” his public work away from private travails. Trump makes no such distinction, moaning constantly about the unfairness of the probes into his conduct, and says he is being treated worse than any other president. In Orlando, he said Democrats are driven by “hatred, prejudice, and rage” and once again referred to himself as victim of “the greatest witch hunt in political history.” How many voters believe Trump cares more about his or her problems than his own?
Bush and his team knew how to use societal divisions over war or cultural debates like gay marriage to electoral advantage. But even when doing so he never retreated from his claim that he saw the job as president as being a uniter. Are there voters who were impressed by Bush’s vow to “restore honor and dignity to the White House” who are backing Trump for reelection because they think he has done so?
Obama believed the public wants their presidents focused on big questions, and not dragged down in “cable chatter.” Is there a Trump voter who loves his policies but is concerned by reports that the president watches several hours of cable news each day, and sometimes is stirred to personnel and policy decisions based on what he has seen?
Those were three presidents who each won two terms by following political rules as they understood them. (It has happened only once before that three U.S. presidents in a row served two full terms, in the early 1800s with Virginians Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe). Can Trump really believe he will make history — with a fourth consecutive two-term presidency — by breaking those very rules?
The answer may lie partly in one more paradox: Trump is in numerical terms the most voluminous teller of falsehoods ever to occupy the presidency. The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” team has the 45thpresident closing in fast on 11,000 false or misleading claims since taking office, about a dozen per day.
At the same time, Trump partisans could reasonably claim that there is in some sense a fundamental candor about this president. When he announced four years ago, he offered himself as a radical disrupter, and made no effort to disguise his vanity or his obsessions — against immigration and free trade — or his contempt for conventional politics and its practitioners. In an earlier generation, scholars and the general public needed Richard Nixon’s secret tapes to learn about that president’s seething vendettas and grievances. The modern audience must only rely on Trump’s Twitter feed. Trump dissembles on many questions but not about the essence of his own character, his high regard for himself and his contempt toward many others. He heads into 2020 as the most important and arresting figure in national life not because he is constantly changing but because he never is.
And Emerson may have had Trump figured out after all: “There is a certain satisfaction in coming down to the lowest ground of politics, for we get rid of cant and hypocrisy.”