BOSTON (CBS) — He blew it.
In 2016 Donald J. Trump caught the imagination of just enough voters in the right states to win the presidency for a range of reasons, distaste for Hillary Clinton and disgust with the domestic economic toll of globalization among them. And there was also the hope that a successful businessman might bring a fresh perspective to the job, including more concern with the bottom line and more respect for the paying customers.
Four years later, he has alienated just enough voters in the wrong states to lose, amid palpable distaste for him personally and disgust with the toll of the pandemic he tried to spin away. The bottom line is in shambles, his disrespect for the customers exposed.
This slow-motion car crash started with a fundamental misunderstanding. Trump was a genius self-marketer, not a successful businessman, as his lifelong trail of bankruptcies and commercial failures show. Successful businessmen do not aggressively alienate a majority of their market, as Trump and his itchy Twitter finger did so compulsively.
When I interviewed Trump supporters in a Billerica diner as the 100-day milestone of his presidency approached in early 2017, they all identified the tweeting as unnecessary and a potential problem. Was it ever. A 2019 New York Times analysis found more than half of Trump’s tweets were attacks on foes real and imagined; they “repeatedly caused problems for the Justice Department lawyers defending his actions in court.” Your average Billerica Joe and Jane grabbing a turkey club on their lunch break had considerably more brains and sense than the leader of the free world.
Correction: the free world’s foremost reactionary. Even if one generously extends credit to him for the tax cuts, defense spending and judicial appointments hustled through by Congressional conservatives, Trump rarely lead in the sense of steering toward a meaningful policy vision.
Immigration reform? Separating families, caging kids and throwing up poorly-built border walls scratched an itch but cured no problems.
Foreign policy? Squeezing more dough out of NATO and eliminating the unlamented Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi don’t make up for the abandonment of the Kurds, the alienation of longtime allies and enabling the rise of Russian and Chinese influence.
Growing the economy and keeping us safe? Whatever progress he could plausibly claim was trashed by the mind-blowing fiasco of Trump’s pandemic mismanagement, the most appalling unforced error of an administration replete with them.
No one blamed Trump for the outbreak. All he had to do when it arrived was walk into the briefing room and say we face a tough fight against a difficult enemy. It won’t be easy, but we can win if we all stick together and make shared, temporary sacrifices. I’m going to do everything in my power to mobilize all our resources for this fight. Working together as Americans always do when we’re under attack, we will prevail. Now, here’s Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx.
But no. COVID-19 wasn’t a disease, it was a political attack on him, a new partisan “hoax” designed to disrupt his re-election. He knew more about how to fight it than the experts. Task force briefings were openings for him to grab free airtime and spew political spin, not crucial opportunities to inform and protect the public.
The CDC recommends wearing masks? He couldn’t see himself setting an example by doing so because it didn’t match his self-image of “sitting in the Oval Office, behind that beautiful Resolute Desk” when meeting with “presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings queens.”
What sort of vainglorious nonsense was this? Nothing unexpected. It’s beyond ironic that the man who coined the term “fake news” capped a career of relentless make-believe with a pretend presidency. From the bogus claims about the inaugural crowds right up to the evidence-free charges of vote fraud being laughed out of courtrooms across the country, Trump buried his shot at growing his base beyond the groupies under a mountain of b.s. and egomania.
Despite it all, he might have won again had the coronavirus and Joe Biden not intervened. The most important political event of the campaign was – appropriately – on leap day, February 29, when South Carolina primary voters brought the Biden campaign back from the dead.
Can you imagine where we’d be today if Bernie Sanders were the nominee? We just saw how the ludicrous smears of “socialist” and being “anti-cop” stuck to Biden to an alarming degree among some voters. Black voters in South Carolina astutely saw Biden as the only competitive choice when their white counterparts in Iowa and New Hampshire didn’t get it. Perhaps some of them even took their cues from Trump, who shot himself in the foot by making it clear with his Ukraine conspiracy fantasies that Biden was the candidate he feared most.
But in the end, this moment isn’t about Biden. All he did was make this race a referendum on Trump, as it had to be for the Democrats to win.
And with their verdict, along with all the other reasons, the solid majority of Americans who voted for change sent a message with their choice. A message, fittingly enough, summed up concisely by the president in one of his latest tweets:
“STOP THE FRAUD”