In theory, President Trump is in a pitched battle with Joe Biden for the presidency. In reality, Mr. Trump is in a battle with Mr. Trump.
That’s one way to look at the recent round of sliding Trump poll numbers, which the media and Democrats are prematurely hailing as an obituary for the administration, but which also have Republicans nervous. Mr. Trump’s path to re-election rests in painting a sharp contrast between his policies of economic restoration, a transformed judiciary and limited government with those of Mr. Biden’s promise of (at best) a return to the slow growth of the Obama years or (at worst) an embrace of progressive nirvana. Instead, he’s helping Democrats and the media make the race a referendum on his Twitter feed.
“Let Trump be Trump!” cry the president’s supporters. They argue it worked before. But this isn’t 2016. The U.S. is emerging from an unprecedented pandemic lockdown that left millions unemployed or bankrupt, children without education, the social order in shambles. The fury that followed George Floyd’s death has put Americans on the edge. They need calm leadership and a positive vision for the future.
Mr. Trump offers glimpses. His May 30 speech following the historic manned SpaceX launch—which addressed the Floyd killing—was a call for justice and peace as well as a tribute to American aspiration. In a subsequent Rose Garden speech, he deplored Floyd’s “brutal death” and reminded viewers that “America needs creation, not destruction.” A week later, his Rose Garden remarks celebrated a jobs report that defied gloomy predictions, and it showcased the American desire to get back to work.
The Trump campaign makes a compelling case that it is nonsensical to claim Democrats are running away with the race. Democratic pollster Doug Schoen wrote that the recent CNN survey showing Mr. Biden up 14 points nationally was skewed—it underrepresented Republicans and counted registered voters rather than likely ones. Match-ups still look tight in swing states.
Mr. Biden is also grappling with an enthusiasm problem. Mr. Trump this year has set records in primary after primary in voter turnout—even though he is uncontested. A recent ABC poll showed only 34% of Biden supporters were “very enthusiastic” about their nominee, compared with 69% of those backing Mr. Trump. Officials also note that the race—at least the mano-a-mano part of it—has yet to begin.
But there’s no question Mr. Trump’s numbers have eroded, both overall and among key voter subgroups. The latest Gallup poll finds only 47% approval of his handling of the economy, down from 63% in January. Those numbers are bleeding into congressional races, putting Republican control of the Senate at risk and raising the possibility of a rout in the House. If the Trump campaign can’t turn things around, the country could be looking at total Democratic control for the first time since 2010—and a liberal Senate majority that may well eliminate the filibuster for legislation and pack the courts. The stakes are high.
The prospect of a turnaround rests on Mr. Trump’s ability to do more than taunt his competitor as “Sleepy Joe” and rail against the “RADICAL LEFT!!” With an economy in tatters, Mr. Trump has an opening to redefine the election as a choice. Americans can vote again for the policies that revived the economy after the moribund Obama-Biden years and continue transforming the judiciary. Or they can take a chance on a Democrat who has promised to raise taxes on 90% of Americans, kill blue-collar fossil-fuel jobs and ban guns, and a party that is considering demands to “defund the police.”
Democrats want this election to be a simple question of whether Americans want four more years of a chaotic White House. The country has had its fill of chaos, so that could prove a powerful message for Mr. Biden. Mr. Trump has to decide just how much he wants to help him.
You said somewhere in another interview — I’m always a little bit careful about quoting other interviews because they don’t always get written down correctly. But I wanted to ask you about this because it’s very intriguing — that some of these sexual issues that are so galvanizing and so polarizing in our time in churches and outside them — you said that you really don’t think that’s about particularities of guilt or sin, but about a sense of impending chaos, which goes back to that first prophetic text you read. Are you saying that people have a sense of impending chaos, and for some reason, maybe because these things are so intimate, this is what they latch onto?
Mr. Brueggemann:That’s exactly what I think. I’ve asked myself why, in the church, does the question of gays and lesbians have such adrenaline. I’ve decided for myself that that means most of what we’re arguing about with gays and lesbians has nothing to do with gays and lesbians. It is rather that the world is not the way we thought it was going to be. I think what has happened is that we’ve taken all of our anxiety about the old world disappearing, and we’ve dumped it all on that issue. I have concluded that it’s almost futile to have the theological argument about gays and lesbians anymore because that’s not what the argument’s about. It is an amorphous anxiety that we are in freefall as a society. I think we kind of are in freefall as a society, but I don’t think it has anything to do with gays and lesbians particularly.
The position of director of national intelligence was created after the 9/11 terror attacks to prevent another such assault on the American homeland. The DNI, as the director is known, must oversee 17 intelligence agencies with a total budget of about $60 billion. There are few jobs more important in the federal government — or the entire country. Yet President Trump treated the selection of a DNI with less care and forethought than he would give to picking an interior designer for Mar-a-Lago.
When Dan Coats decided last month that he had suffered enough as Trump’s DNI, Trump reportedly called Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to ask what he thought about Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) as a replacement. “Burr responded that he didn’t know much about the lawmaker but would consult with a few people,” Politico reported. “But less than a half hour later, Trump tweeted that Ratcliffe was his choice.”
Trump picked Ratcliffe, it seems, because he liked the congressman’s obnoxious questioning of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in July hearings and his role in spreading cuckoo conspiracy theories about a nonexistent “secret society” of FBI agents supposedly out to get the president. But it soon emerged that Trump didn’t know much about his new nominee.
In the days after Trump impetuously announced Ratcliffe’s nomination on July 28, The Post and other news organizations discovered that the three-term congressman from Texas had greatly embellished his résumé. He had boasted that he had “arrested over 300 illegal immigrants in a single day” and had “firsthand experience combating terrorism. When serving by special appointment in U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation, he convicted individuals who were funneling money to Hamas behind the front of a charitable organization.” Turns out that Ratcliffe had played only a small role in a sweep of undocumented immigrants and an even smaller role in the Holy Land case; an aide told the New York Times that Ratcliffe only “investigated side issues related to an initial mistrial.”
With Senate opposition growing, Trump withdrew Ratcliffe’s nomination on Friday just five days after putting him forward. He had lasted less than half a Scaramucci. In pulling the plug, Trump both credited and blamed the media, saying, “You are part of the vetting process. I give out a name to the press and you vet for me, we save a lot of money that way. But in the case of John [Ratcliffe], I really believe that he was being treated very harshly and very unfairly.”
Ratcliffe was treated “very harshly and very unfairly” — but by Trump, not the news media. There’s a reason presidents normally vet nominees before, not after, they’re announced. It’s better both for the prospective appointee and for the president to have any skeletons uncovered before swinging the closet door wide open.
By ignoring the traditional way of doing things, Trump subjected his personal physician, Rear Adm. Ronny L. Jackson, to considerable embarrassment in 2018 by nominating him to become secretary of veterans affairs and then having to withdraw the nomination after stories emerged accusing Jackson of “freely dispensing medication, drinking on the job and creating a hostile workplace.” The Defense Department inspector general even launched an investigation of Jackson. Learning nothing, Trump repeated the same mistake this year when he nominated Herman Cain and Stephen Moore to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors — posts for which they were utterly unqualified. Facing Senate resistance, Trump had to withdraw their names — but not before unflattering details of Moore’s divorce became public.
And those are the good-news stories: the nominees who never took office. Much more common for Trump has been his discovery, after the fact, that his appointments were terrible mistakes. His clunkers have included a secretary of state
- (Rex Tillerson) who devastated morale at the State Department; a national security adviser
- (Michael Flynn) who was convicted of lying to the FBI; three Cabinet officers (Interior Secretary
- Ryan Zinke, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, Health and Human Services Secretary
- Tom Price) who were forced out for improper travel expenses and other ethical improprieties; a secretary of labor
- (Alexander Acosta) who had given a sweetheart deal to a wealthy sex offender; and of course a communications director
- (Anthony Scaramucci) who was fired after 11 days for giving a profanity-filled, on-the-record interview to a reporter.
Coats is the 10th Cabinet member to leave the Trump administration. In President Barack Obama’s first two years in office, not a single Cabinet member departed. Trump also has a record-setting rate of 75 percent turnover among senior, non-Cabinet officials. The cost of this constant churn and chaos is high: It becomes nearly impossible to develop or pursue coherent policies.Trump is a president straight out of “The Great Gatsby.” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of his protagonists: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” In Trump’s case, the thing that he has smashed up is America’s government, and the cleanup cannot begin until January 2021 at the earliest.