An American president setting off a war somewhere in the world to win an election he thinks is already lost – it’s a script familiar to moviegoers. But an American president who threatens to wage war on American cities to turn an election campaign around? That’s unheard of.
At least it was until now.
Amidst the clouds of tear gas, anonymous federal police in battle gear throw stun grenades into a crowd, arresting protesters in the streets, locking them up without warrants. The videos showing the deployment of militarized troops in the United States look like scenes from the combat video game “Call of Duty.” But they’re real.
Donald Trump has deployed the federal troops from his Department of Homeland Security as a kind of presidential militia in Portland on the West Coast, where they have been using brute force against Black Lives Matter supporters who have been protesting in the city for weeks. The heavily armed security force is usually reserved for things like counter-terrorism operations or going up against drug smugglers. They are in plain clothes and their vehicles have no license plates.
Every day, hundreds of mothers are peacefully standing up to the authorities. They call themselves the “wall of moms” and sing “please don’t shoot us” and nursery rhymes. But the security forces have no regard for them. “Every night, moms have been teargassed, moms have been arrested, moms have been treated violently,” Joselyn Merrill, one of the protesting moms, says by phone. Merrill is an Air Force veteran with three children.
“A member of my congregation, who is also a city commissioner, was teargassed,” says Merrill. “The street medics have also been targeted. These are people that are volunteering their time to make sure that everybody’s safety is of the foremost importance every night. It’s shocking that this is happening.”
Merrill says she took an oath on the constitution as an Air Force veteran. “I never thought that this was going to happen on U.S. soil.”
The president, who is lagging far behind challenger Joe Biden of the Democratic Party in virtually all polls, is doing something that none of his predecessors has done: He’s invading American cities. “We’ll do something,” Trump said. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Baltimore, he said, are ruled by “liberal Democrats,” by the “radical left.” He argued that if Biden wins the presidency, the same would happen in the rest of the country. “The whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”
Portland was the start. The president now wants to turn to cities where he believes there’s too much crime, which has in fact gone up in some places during the pandemic. But the fight against crime is normally the responsibility of the local police, with federal forces usually only stepping in if they are requested by local authorities. On Wednesday, Trump announced a “surge,” a military term from the Iraq war period that describes a massive increase in the number of troops with the goal of pacifying the country. Hundreds of federal officers are now heading to cities like Chicago.
Critics warn that Trump, who is not exactly coming across as sane in the White House these days, is sowing the chaos only so that he can then portray himself as a savior. Earlier this week, leftist New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote: “Trump’s occupation of American cities has begun.”
It feels like the last stand of a failed leader hoping for some major event to happen that would enable him to get re-elected in November – like fighting in the streets, or maybe even a miracle.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is marked by a historical failure. The man who sold himself as a born manager literally fell apart when America faced its biggest crisis. COVID-19 has laid bare Trump’s talents as president – which is to say, a complete lack thereof. It has also horrified many of his former voters.
He publicly suggested that injecting bleach could help protect against the virus and said that he told his people to test less in the country – since the problem for him wasn’t the many people who are sick, but rather the number of people being tested.
The number of COVID-19 deaths in the country is nearing the 150,000 mark. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed around 30 million Americans into unemployment and robbed 5 million of their health insurance. With the rising number of infections preventing the economy from getting back on track, the recession is increasingly eating away at the American middle class.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 31/2020 (July 25, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
The idea that the U.S. is a special nation is deeply anchored in the American soul. Under Trump, however, the word exceptionalism has taken on a whole new meaning. No developed nation has managed the COVID-19 crisis as terribly as the U.S.: The country of 330 million is counting 66,000 new infections per day. In the European Union, which is home to 446 million people, the daily new infections number less than 5,000.
The U.S.’s top pandemic expert, Anthony Fauci, one of the last remaining voices of reason in the Trump administration, has described it as a “nightmare.” This prompted Trump’s press team to start a campaign against the immunologist, who did nothing more than state things as they are, scientifically. That alone was enough to attract Trump’s ire.
The coronavirus pandemic could have been the opportunity for Trump to show that he was a crisis-capable president who transcended party politics. In the end, nothing could have been further from the truth. Trump turned the fight against the virus into a holy war in which the mask was a symbol. For months, the president refused to wear one. The message he sent was clear: Only liberal weaklings who are susceptible to the propaganda of the left-wing mainstream media wear masks. There are countless videos online in which furious Trump supporters defend their right to mask-free shopping.
Trump’s crusade against the mask has mostly backfired on him. Few things have spurred the spread of the virus like the refusal of many Americans to wear masks. Many governors, especially in Republican strongholds, shied away from mandating that people must wear face-coverings out of fear of Trump’s hardliner supporters. This recklessness has allowed the number of infections to explode, for example, in Jefferson Parish, a community on the edge of New Orleans.
A first wave of the pandemic rolled through the community in March. Mayor Cynthia Lee Sheng managed to dramatically lower the number of new infections by imposing a lockdown. “I had the feeling we had the virus under control,” she says.
But after businesses and restaurants reopened, the numbers of infections went up again – partly because many refused to wear a mask. Now, Louisiana is the state in which the number of daily new infections is growing second-fastest in the country, after Florida.
Since neither the president nor the governor, a Democrat who didn’t want to issue a general mask requirement, helped, Lee Sheng had to act alone. On June 29, she imposed a mask requirement for her community. The decision was controversial. “There were emotional reactions, people protested in front of my office for two days,” she says. “But it is my job to contain the virus, and for that we need the mask rule.” Lee Sheng is a Republican, and she has a clear opinion of Trump’s coronavirus policies. “Anybody who’s a role model, regardless of party, should be wearing a mask,” she says.
Devastating Poll Figures
Is a president with this kind of disastrous record even re-electable? If common sense and the rules of politics still mean anything, Trump should lose on Nov. 3. His poll numbers are almost at an all-time low. No president since Jimmy Carter has had such devastating numbers. In the national polls, Trump is on average trailing behind Biden by 9 percentage points. As things stand now, Biden would also win the crucial swing states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio.
It is mainly older voters and whites with a college degree who are turning on Trump. His core voters, whites without college educations, are still sticking with him, but based on the polls, he has even lost support there. If Trump is disappointing even his most loyal voters, then he has serious problems.
“Polling is inexact, you have to be careful how you interpret it. There are just so many moving parts,”says Micah Cohen, one of the senior editors at FiveThirtyEight, a leading American poll-tracking website. “Trump is down by enough that it would take a historically huge polling error for him to win again like in 2016.”
Trump has been written off once before – and that resulted in a trauma for Washington’s political class. In the fall of 2016, only a few outsiders believed that the greedy real-estate shark, who boasted that he could grab women by the crotch without being asked, would win. Even on election day, the New York Times put Hillary Clinton’s changes of victory at a whopping 85 percent.
That only made the hangover worse. The errors behind those incorrect predictions went beyond the statistical one. They became part of a larger narrative about an aloof Washington bubble that had completely lost touch with what was happening in the rest of the country. Is history repeating in 2020? That’s what Trump is hoping. In an interview, he claimed that the polls had already been “fake” in 2016, and that today they are “even more fake.”
He claims that there is still a lot of enthusiasm for him, but that his supporters are simply afraid of expressing it publicly. “The silent majority is stronger than ever before,” he recently stated.
Does he really believe that? Trump’s show of brute force in American cities, and his recent behavior, cast doubt on that.
It was a new Donald Trump who appeared in the White House Press Room on Tuesday. “I have no problem with the masks,” said the man who helped politicize masks more than anyone else in the U.S. But now he was playing a different tune: that “anything that potentially can help is a good thing.” He also said he has a mask himself, which he wears in elevators.
Trump sounded calm, reasonable, almost boring. The wall behind him showed the infection curves – a graph that has become a kind of fever curve for his presidency — that he liked to keep quiet about during earlier press briefings.
Did the U.S. suddenly have a new, reformed president? A leader one could trust to lead the country through the terrible crisis?
This new Trump could be called the “scripted Trump,” a man who listlessly reads what others have written for him, a Trump who popped up especially often during the 2016 election campaign, when his advisers believed that it was best to hide the real Trump.
Scripted Trump made his return appearance at the Tuesday briefing, which also marked the resumption of the White House coronavirus briefing. Early in the pandemic, the president appeared in front of the cameras almost daily, but the appearances would spin out of control, with Trump denying the dangers of the virus and, in the eyes of his advisers, doing so much damage himself so much that the briefings were discontinued in April.
Now they are back, with a more serious-looking Trump. But past experience suggests that he won’t last long in this role. If the new edition of the briefings suggests anything, it’s that the fear of defeat has reached the president himself.
An Apocalyptic Air
In recent days, he hasn’t just been plagued by the polls – his appearances have also had an apocalyptic air to them. After the CEO of Goya, a bean company popular with Latinx Americans, said he supported Trump, left-wing Latinx politicians announced a boycott, and the president was photographed holding a can of beans. There have also been devastating books published by his former National Security Advisor John Bolton and his niece Mary Trump, both of whom portray the president as mentally incompetent.
And finally, Trump gave a devastating interview to journalist Chris Wallace of Fox News, usually his favorite channel. It marked a rare moment in which a journalist from the station questioned the president’s statements and thwarted his performance with precise questions. The president went off the rails, seeming tired and irritable.
Trump made it clear that he might not accept defeat in the election, and Wallace confronted him about his false claim that Joe Biden wants to abolish the police. Trump also repeated that he had passed a cognitive test that he claimed Biden would be unlikely to pass. The Montreal Cognitive Assessment is designed to detect early forms of dementia in patients – and, contrary to what Trump may think, it is not an IQ test.
The journalist had to point out to Trump that the test was very simple, and merely required someone to, for example, recognize a drawing of an elephant. Nevertheless, the president boasted in another interview this week that, as part of the test, he had actually managed to memorize and repeat the words “person,” “woman,” “man,” “camera” and “TV.” The video became a viral sensation.
The problems faced by Trump in his campaign are especially evident in the Republican stronghold of Texas. “Financially,” says restaurateur Adam Duran, “I can only hold out a few more months.” He’s sitting at the counter of the Fry Street Tavern, sipping a glass of water. It’s eerily quiet in the bar, which is located in the central Texas town of Denton, about 40 miles north of Dallas. The only sound is of the whirring of the new ventilation system Duran installed for $2,000 to protect his guests from the virus. It was of no use. A few days later, Governor Greg Abbott announced that all bars in the state had to close again. “I had just ordered more alcohol,” Duran says.
There is probably no other place in the United States where the policies for containing the coronavirus are as contradictory as they are in the Republican-governed state of Texas. When the virus began spreading in the spring, Dan Patrick gave what has since become an infamous interview to Fox News. Shortly before his 70th birthday, the state’s lieutenant governor said that he was prepared to sacrifice his life to keep the Texas economy going. “I’m all in,” Patrick said, as if fighting the virus were a game of poker.
The state’s response mirrored that attitude. For weeks, Governor Abbott acted as though COVID-19 was a disease that would only hit states governed by Democrats. It wasn’t until March 19, when the intensive care units in New York were filling up, that he ordered a comprehensive lockdown in his state, even though it wasn’t officially even called that. Everyone was free to leave their home, Abbott assured. He also forbade cities governed by Democrats from fining anyone who refused to wear a mask.
On April 30, Abbott lifted most of the restrictions in Texas. Restaurants, nail studios and hairdressing salons opened, along with bars, including the one owned by Adam Duran. Looking back, Duran says it was far too early. “I think the restrictions should have been in place for at least another month,” he says. Almost as soon as his business started up again, infection rates began to skyrocket in Texas. Almost 10,000 new infections are currently being reported each day in the state.
“We have a lack of competent politicians,” Duran laments. For him, it is no longer just a question of the 35 people he employs at his establishments. He’s also worried he won’t be able to pay the mortgage on his home. “What we need is a return to normality,” Duran says. “I, for one, am going to elect a politician in November who knows how to run the country and is not busy with his Twitter account all the time.”
In November 2016, Trump carried Texas by 9 percentage points. Now it seems at least theoretically conceivable that, for the first time in decades, the Democrats will prevail in the state in this November’s election. A June survey here showed Biden with a five-percent lead in the state. If Texas, with its nearly 30 million inhabitants were to vote for the Democrats, the election would be as good as lost for Trump.
Bankrupt As a Businessman and Politician
Perhaps the greatest misconception about Donald Trump before he got elected as president was that, even though he didn’t have experience as a politician, he was a good manager — a successful businessman and a self-made billionaire who knew about deals.
But that was wrong even then. Trump has never been a very successful entrepreneur. He inherited a large part of his fortune, more than $400 million, from his father. The New York Times has reported that his companies posted losses of a billion dollars in the 1980s and 1990s alone. Germany’s Deutsche Bank, of all institutions, stepped in from the 1990s onward with loans to the tune of billions, long before Trump became president. Many of his companies went bankrupt, including three casinos in Atlantic City and the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue in New York. The stories of contractors and subcontractors Trump never paid are notorious.
But it took the coronavirus to unmask Trump for what he really is and for him to be stripped of his apparent Midas touch, making it impossible to overlook the fact that Trump is bankrupt not only as a businessman, but also as a politician and president.
It’s Tuesday morning, and a long line has formed again in front of the Salvation Army building on Texas Avenue in Atlantic City. Several dozen people are waiting to pick up a package with sandwiches, a bottle of water and some fruit. The casino skyscrapers are just a short distance away and a several of the men and women in the line have worked there or in the restaurants and shops of the malls connected to them.
The situation in Atlantic City isn’t likely to improve anytime soon. The casinos have partly reopened and people are strolling along the Boardwalk, but the city was already in trouble before the coronavirus. The pandemic has merely accelerated the decline. Numerous buildings are empty and many streets are filled with litter. Things deteriorate quickly when you get just a few blocks away from the casinos.
Here, Keith Fullmer has twice fallen victim to Donald Trump.
In 2000, Fullmer landed a job as a bartender at the Taj Mahal, the Trump organization’s largest casino in Atlantic City. It was the year Trump personally took over the management of his casino empire. Thanks to Trump, who owned three buildings there, Atlantic City appeared to be on its way to overtaking Las Vegas as the gambling capital of the world.
No Viable Business Model
Fullmer, who is 69, talks fast and incessantly. He saw Trump occasionally when he inspected the Taj Mahal. “He never shook anyone’s hand,” Fullmer says. “He was afraid of germs.” Business was already bad by that point. Trump had financed the casinos with loans and junk bonds that were shackled with absurdly high interest rates. It soon became clear that the casinos would never generate enough income to pay back the creditors. Indeed, Trump lacked a viable business model.
The consequences were dramatic for many people. Hundreds of employees lost their jobs, including Fullmer. Suppliers had to accept a fraction of what they were entitled to. Investors also had to pay. Only one person escaped the whole episode nearly unscathed: Trump. He received millions of dollars in salaries, bonuses and expenses he billed through the company. Trump didn’t have a good reputation among ordinary employees, and it was particularly bad among those like Fullmer who were union members. “He didn’t want unions in his casinos,” Fullmer says. “He kept trying to squeeze our wages and cut our health insurance.”
Trump’s casino companies went into bankruptcy proceedings four times. “I knew many of the alcohol suppliers,” he says. “Trump owed them a lot of money. When he filed for bankruptcy, they went bankrupt.”
Two of Trump’s casinos changed owners. The third, the former Trump Plaza, still stands empty on the Boardwalk, the famous stretch of casinos. Parts of the white facade have crumbled off, and the grounds are secured with a fence to prevent anyone from getting injured. The complex is scheduled for demolition next year. Nobody here talks about Las Vegas anymore.
After the Taj Mahal was finally acquired by another company, Fullmer found employment there as a bartender. But in contrast to the times under Trump, he says he was treated decently as an employee. “The difference is like night and day,” he says.
This year, Trump’s incompetence hit him a second time. Because Trump didn’t take the pandemic seriously, infection figures rose to dizzying heights. Atlantic City’s casinos had to close and Fullmer has been furloughed ever since. The only thing he has left for the president is anger.
Republicans Won’t Revolt
So far, no high-ranking Republican politicians have turned their backs on Trump. The only issue on which several senators have contradicted him is masks and how to contain the virus. He doesn’t need to fear a revolt against him in the Republican Party. Even if some members of the House and Senate are worried they will be voted out of office along with the president this autumn, they don’t dare to oppose him because he’s still highly popular at the grassroots level.
But a small group of Republicans have turned their back on Trump and the party, and have been fighting fiercely. The most prominent anti-Trump organization is the Lincoln Project, which is run by former Republican campaign strategists and floods the net with videos aimed at the president.
“Something’s wrong with Donald Trump,” one video informs. “He’s shaky. Weak. Trouble speaking. Trouble walking.” The whole thing is interspersed with footage of the president holding a glass to his mouth with two hands or walking down a ramp at the West Point Military Academy on shaky legs. “We’re not doctors, but we’re not blind,” the narrator says. “It’s time we talk about this. Donald Trump is not well.”
Normally, Trump is the one casting doubts about the physical and mental health of his political opponents. His Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden has never stooped to that level, but the Lincoln Project has no qualms about doing so.
“We have become a social movement,” says Mike Madrid, a Republican political adviser and one of the founders of the Lincoln Project. That may sound slightly overblown, but the figures seem to back Madrid’s claim. More than 10,000 supporters attended the group’s first virtual town hall meeting two weeks ago.
But aren’t they just Trump haters who wouldn’t vote for the president, anyway? “We know from the data we have collected that a third of the people who support us are committed Republicans,” says Lincoln Project CEO Sarah Lenti. During the past quarter, the group raised $16.8 million, mostly from small donors, she says.
The Lincoln Project’s videos are having an effect, too. At a major event in Tulsa, Trump spent 14 minutes explaining why he was walking down the ramp so slowly at West Point. Nothing could have shown as clearly how concerned his is about accusations that he has anything but perfect health.
It may also have something to do with the fact that the Lincoln Project videos are as direct and aggressive as Trump is with his opponents. “Michelle Obama has said the Democrats will not stoop to Trump’s level,” says Madrid. “That was a tactical error. If Trump wants to go down to gutter level, we will welcome him there.”
“It’s the Economy, Stupid!”
Even if only a small percentage of people change sides or stay away from the polling booths in contested states like Wisconsin or Arizona, it would be enough to impede Trump’s re-election. The fact that Biden is the Democratic candidate makes it easier for moderate Republican voters to oppose Trump, especially now that the president has lost his most important campaign argument: a booming economy. Before the coronavirus struck, unemployment in the U.S. was at 3.5 percent, the lowest it had been since the 1960s.
Things were also looking up for Africa Frasier. The 42-year-old mother of three was promoted last year to head a Family Dollar supermarket in North Charleston, South Carolina, she explains, with great pride. She had separated from her partner “for the better,” as she puts it, and moved into a new home in the spring with enough space for her children, Kayla, 13, Bobby, 12, and Angelo, 5. The rent was cheap, the school was good and there was decent childcare. “I had my life under control,” she says.
It was the life of a single mother on the lower end of the American middle class, but things were looking promising. Then the virus struck and schools closed. She had to reduce her workload to take care of her children, but her employer refused. This left her with no choice but to quit her job, she says. Like millions of other Americans, she has few savings and was living from paycheck to paycheck. As of May, she has no longer been able to pay the $700 a month in rent on the house. Her landlord is trying to evict her now and Frasier will have to go a court appointment in July. “If we get kicked out, I don’t know what will happen next,” she says.
According to estimates by the Aspen Institute, a prominent American think tank, around 20 million renters in the U.S. could be facing eviction between now and the end of September. Even though the U.S. government has imposed a partial moratorium on evictions and foreclosures during the crisis, those restrictions end this week. Other important aid measures are also threatening to run out soon.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” is probably the most famous piece of American campaign wisdom, reflecting the belief that no candidate can prevail against poor economic figures. The remark is allegedly attributable to James Carville, the political strategist who helped steer Bill Clinton’s successful election campaign in 1992 against George H. W. Bush. The latter’s failure to get re-elected actually had more to do with the global recession than with Clinton’s strength.
Bush Sr. was the last U.S. president to fail to land a second term. Trump could be the next. Carville, still a sought-after politician commentator, recently said in a television interview that he was certain Trump has “no chance” of re-election in November.
A Fast Crash, Slow Recovery?
Trump’s own people know that he won’t prevail without a dynamic recovery to the economic crash caused by the coronavirus. That’s why Trump is now commenting on better-than-expected labor market figures from May and June with his characteristically aggressive and calculated optimism. Speaking in front of the White House just a few weeks ago, Trump predicted that the U.S. economy would take off again with a “big bang.” “This is better than a ‘V’,” he said. “This is a rocket ship.”
Better than a V? It has become common to compare the course of the economy to the shape of letters. The “V” stands for a quick restoration of growth; the “U” for a longer period of stagnation before the subsequent upswing; and an “L” for a prolonged period of economic suffering.
Michael Boskin, an economist at Stanford University, has added another option – the Nike swoosh, representing a fast crash and a slow recovery. Boskin, who still believed at the end of February that Trump should “win easily” based on the economic situation at the time, now sees “greater than normal uncertainty” in the forecasts because “the speed of economic recovery is dependent on the health situation.”
And it looks bad right now. In recent weeks, the U.S. has been setting sad new records for infections on a daily basis. “The economy can’t really recover as long as so many people are or are getting sick,” says Boskin. However, he also points out that voters still have more confidence in Trump than they do in Biden when it comes to the economy.
And there is indeed an economic scenario that could yet save Trump: If the president and Congress extend their emergency aid and stimulus payments beyond July and the economy picks up again in time for the election. Boskin considers that to be “possible, but unlikely.” The U.S. labor market did grow in June by an astonishing 4.8 million jobs, but that’s still 15 million jobs fewer than in February.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a bipartisan federal budgetary agency in Washington, estimates that the U.S. economy will not fully overcome the pandemic until 2028. The agency is forecasting that the unemployment rate, currently at 11 percent, will remain at a higher level than before the crisis until 2030.
Trump Will Have To Hope for a Miracle
So, Trump will have to hope for a miracle — or for his opponent to stumble. Probably the greatest weakness the Democrats have right now is their own presidential candidate. Biden is 77 years old and already has two unsuccessful bids to become the Democratic presidential nominee behind him. Each time, he managed to stumble over himself. The fact that he got so far this time has less to do with Biden’s skills than with the fact that the man who is called “Uncle Joe” within his party is the person the most people could live with as the Democrats’ candidate.
And that’s still no guarantee that he can prevail against Trump, who has proven more than once that he knows how to put up a fight.
Trump’s great skill has always been his ability to massively divide the country. That’s also likely the calculation behind the police operations in American cities.
Not a day has passed in recent weeks without Trump calling on his supporters to join the culture war against a purported “leftist mob” which, together with Biden, wants to “wipe out our history” and “defame our heroes.”
In his now infamous 4th of July speech at Mt. Rushmore, Trump even went so far as to claim “there is a new far-left fascism” on the rise in America and that he’s the only one who can stop it. He said the leftists are not only determined to tear down statues of generals from the South who once defended slavery, but also those of historical presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they had themselves been slave owners.
It sometimes seemed like Trump’s primary interest was statues: He announced the creation of a statue park and said he wanted to use some of the statues at his campaign rallies. These days, however, one bust seems to be more endangered that all the others: his own.