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What in the world is President Trump doing?
With just days left until the election, and with somewhere north of 73 million people having already voted, the president has precious little time to turn around the fortunes of his re-election campaign and the prospects of the endangered Republican Senate majority. You would think that someone interested in stumbling into a second inaugural would be doing everything he can to convince the dwindling number of persuadable voters to give him another chance. Instead, the president is bent on alienating as many voters as possible in the campaign's closing days by flouting public health guidelines, babbling convoluted innuendo about Hunter Biden, and ignoring the increasingly desperate plight of Americans teetering on the edge of disaster.
Let's start with the rallies. The president and his team made a decision weeks ago to continue crisscrossing the country with a planeload of recent COVID-19 victims, including the president himself, and packing thousands of unmasked supporters in stadiums, airports, and other venues. Sometimes these rallies have taken place in open defiance of state public health guidelines, and they have always been on the wrong side of public opinion. The public disapproves of President Trump's handling of the coronavirus crisis by an average of almost 18 points, and these ridiculous COVID parties will only make that number worse.
Most Americans — about two-thirds — are still concerned about the coronavirus. More than 80 percent of voters in every critical battleground state except Iowa tell researchers that they wear a mask in public "all or most of the time." Reminder: Masks are unpleasant for everyone, but conscientious Americans are doing it anyway. A September survey found that 83 percent of Americans are still practicing social distancing — an anodyne euphemism for the incredibly painful practice of isolating yourself from friends and family indefinitely. Even if these numbers are off by 15 points, you're still talking about a campaign openly leaning in to behavior that is disapproved by supermajorities of the American people.
How does the Trump campaign think all of this mask-free pageantry and reckless endangerment looks to voters who have suffered and sacrificed for eight long months in an effort to stop the spread of the virus and to spare themselves and their loved ones illness and death? To the parents who have worked around the clock with kids at home, living the same nightmare day over and over? To the millions who have lost someone close to them or who have survived the ordeal but nevertheless suffered the debilitating effects of COVID-19? To the multitudes of essential workers and health-care professionals putting their lives on the line to keep society functioning? The Trump campaign is not only sloughing off their sacrifices but also contributing to a spiraling third wave of the virus that threatens to make this winter a horror show for everyone.
Will some subset of people who disapprove of the president holding rallies still vote for him? There is no doubt about that, but why give people otherwise inclined to support you a reason to think twice about it? What would be lost by taking reasonable precautions besides letting go of the fairy tale that we are "rounding the corner" in the fight against COVID-19?
Why can no one in his circle tell the president the truth about these rallies? No one attends or watches them except journalists who have no choice and die-hard supporters. They persuade no one. Their marginal turnout value is vastly outweighed by the public relations hit he takes just by holding them. They are all a massive waste of time and energy that just leave public health crises in their wakes.
The president has also given up on negotiating a fresh relief bill for millions of unemployed Americans who have run out of savings, and the hundreds of thousands of reeling or permanently shuttered businesses. Here again, the president is brazenly flipping off a public opinion supermajority — 74 percent of respondents in a poll last week said that they want Congress to pass a $2 trillion COVID relief bill. Instead, the president subcontracted the negotiations to Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin, who gave up on narrowing a fairly small gap with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when it became clear that Senate Republicans preferred to watch limply as catastrophe befell the American people, choosing instead to spend their time confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court eight days before the election.
There is also the matter of the campaign's bizarre, confusing, and off-putting fixation on Joe Biden's only surviving son, Hunter Biden. The president's consigliere, former New York City Mayor and hopeless dupe Rudy Giuiliani, has spent the last two weeks desperately trying to launder wild-eyed nonsense about the Bidens through right-leaning but mainstream media outlets like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post, only to discover that above-the-board newsroom journalists at both outlets wouldn't put their names on such obvious trash.
They booked a sleazebag called Tony Bobulinski on heavy evening Fox rotation, including a long interview on Tucker Carlson's show, even though nothing he has said or produced, even if it is authentic, implicates Joe Biden in any wrongdoing and mostly serves to remind everyone that Hunter Biden is a troubled person who is loved by his Dad anyway. That the whole right-wing media complex from Mollie Hemingway to the president's kitchen cabinet on Fox News is running with identical and laughable lines about it only serves to underline how desperate the president's political plight must be if this is all they have left. What are they even talking about? Is it illegal to do business in China? If so you better prep the paddy wagon for the whole Trump family. Last week it was revealed that the president himself withdrew money from a secret Chinese bank account while he was president!
This three-pronged strategy of political suicide and public health disaster came together seamlessly Tuesday night in Omaha, Nebraska. Before stranding thousands of his hapless followers in the cold, ink-black darkness outside of the airport, the president babbled on for two minutes about this inscrutable non-scandal ("Vice President Biden was directly involved and personally involved in establishing corrupt business dealing with China and getting money for it") and then repeatedly made fun of the media for covering the coronavirus: "But you notice the fake news now, right? All they talk about is COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID. And we've made such progress it's incredible."
Is the president on meth? Nebraska is a virus hotspot. The country is setting records for daily cases while hospital systems groan under the weight of new COVID patients and every sensible American is trying to figure out how to survive a long winter without flinging themselves into the nearest body of water.
It is hard to look dispassionately at this strategy and conclude anything other than that the Trump campaign is either trying to lose on purpose or is led by people who are genuinely incapable of reading polls or adjusting their strategy based on new information. Trump is down 9 points nationally in polling averages. His trails badly in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and in the Midwest it looks more and more like the president's homicidal indifference to the virus is costing him dearly.
This is where the standard "Trump could still win" caveat would go, but it is honestly impossible to see how, absent a polling error of such magnitude that it would obliterate the industry forever. Unlike everything else the president's campaign is doing right now, hoping fervidly for an incredible, across-the-board polling failure at least has the virtue of not actively turning off voters he needs to win.
Good luck with all that.