A Presidency in Freefall

Lozada Shoots The Wounded

Four years ago, on October 7, 2016, the Access Hollywood tapes were dropped. Trump, nevertheless, survived.

That seems less likely this time around, as the mood of the electorate shifts from exhaustion to disgust.

The signs of collapse are all around. The pandemic continues to claim victims in the White House, including Trump’s dark Sméagol, Stephen Miller. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been forced into isolation. On Tuesday, Trump killed a stimulus deal and then went on a wild, unhinged Twitter rampage; even as his poll numbers continue to collapse.

Welcome to the Countdown Journal. There are 27 days until Election day and then 78 after than until the Inauguration.

Just for a moment, imagine this is Earth 2.0 and Donald Trump is behaving like a rational human being.

He returns from the hospital, a chastened man. He orders his staff and others to take the strictest precautions to protect themselves and others. He sends a message to the country:

I am deeply humbled by this experience, he says, and understand the fears and frustrations of so many of you. I have been lucky, but I know many of you have not been. But my experience has taught me that none of us are safe; none of us are immune. Not all of you can get the kind of treatment I just received, but I will devote my second term to making sure it is available to every Americans.

We can make it, but I realize that we are all in this together. As a result, my first act will be to endorse another stimulus package that will help keep tens of millions of my fellow Americans afloat.

Okay, this doesn’t work, because he’s Donald Trump. The imagined speech would have been good politics, but it would require empathy, a willingness to admit vulnerability, and probably require an apology for his callous indifference. So… impossible.

Trump is held hostage by his own sweaty self; pinioned by his narcissism, callousness, and addiction to cruelty.

This is the reality on Earth 1.0: “‘We Need to Take Away Children,’ No Matter How Young, Justice Dept. Officials Said.”

“We need to take away children,” Mr. Sessions told the prosecutors, according to participants’ notes. One added in shorthand: “If care about kids, don’t bring them in. Won’t give amnesty to people with kids.”

Rod J. Rosenstein, then the deputy attorney general, went even further in a second call about a week later, telling the five prosecutors that it did not matter how young the children were. He said that government lawyers should not have refused to prosecute two cases simply because the children were barely more than infants.

So instead of a relief package we got Trumpism on steroids. Literally.

Indeed, it may really have been the worst political blunder in memory. Even his closest aides were flummoxed.

Some part of Trump may have realized that he made mistake because, as Tim Miller notes, he proceeded to launch insane negotiations with himself on Twitter.

Given that I have never been “in a boardroom” for a high-stakes parley like this and that I cannot take the full measure of Donald Trump since he spent the day hiding from the cameras as the novel coronavirus infection consumed him, I can only turn to a celebrity negotiator for his expert analysis on what transpired:

“The worst thing you can possibly do in a deal is seem desperate to make it. That makes the other guy smell blood, and then you’re dead.” —Donald J. Trump.

Hard to argue with that.

During the night’s rampage, Trump seemed to double back and promise support for sending out immediate relief checks, but he had already handed a loaded gun to Joe Biden:

"Make no mistake: if you are out of work, if your business is closed, if your child’s school is shut down, if you are seeing layoffs in your community, Donald Trump decided today that none of that — none of it — matters to him," said Biden

Trump also made the optics of the rushed confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett (already bad) look even worse. That won’t make a difference to Senate Republicans, who are intent on ramming the nomination through. But it all added up to the sense that things were falling apart.

We wake up today, with the growing sense that Trump is in freefall. The polls are ghastly and you can sense the mood of the country shifting. Via the Wapo:

Biden’s 16-point lead in the CNN poll is the most lopsided October poll we’ve seen in any election in the 21st century.

That may well be an outlier, but we are now seeing other polls showing a double digit lead… here… and here… and here.here… and here. The debate hurt him; and his hospitalization seems to have tanked his numbers even more. The RealClearPolitics average now has Biden up by 9.0 points.

And look at this:

Here’s Politico’s Nightly newsletter’s lead:

IS IT OVER? Here is what everyone in Washington is thinking but does not want to say out loud: President Donald Trump is going to lose this election in 28 days, probably by a large margin.

A growing number of insiders, including many Republicans, are starting to venture — privately — that this outcome is likely to be clear on Election Night, not days or weeks later.

And Trump’s collapse is likely to take Republican control of the Senate with him.

Via this morning’s Wapo:

A GOP group working to elect Senate Republicans conducted polling over the weekend in four states — Colorado, Georgia, Montana and North Carolina — as Trump was hospitalized. The president’s numbers dropped ‘significantly’ in every state, falling by about five points in all four. ‘The president is in real trouble,’ said one of the group’s operatives, who is also close to the White House.”

Make sure you read Tim Alberta, who writes that “Trump fatigue is peaking at the wrong time for Trump.” Also this:

The president has a problem with female voters. Yes, this has been observed by every pollster, every political professional, in both parties over the past four years. …But what we’re seeing now, in polling conducted by both parties, isn’t a wave. It isn’t even a tsunami. It’s something we don’t have a name for, because we’ve never seen anything like it.

Some personal thoughts:

“A critic,” journalist and author  Murray Kempton once quipped, “is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.”

Which brings me to Carlos Lozada’s new book, ‘What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era’ which is being published Tuesday to great critical acclaim.

Lozada is a keen observer of our deranged times, and we should be grateful for his labors; the man has martyred himself by subjecting himself to the many effusions of literature on Trump and all of his works.

So I was expecting more, which may be unfair.

As the Pulitzer-prize winning book editor of the Washington Post, Lozada is a very busy man, writing reviews of hundreds of books. You really can’t expect him to revisit them or rethink his initial judgments, so inevitably his book will largely recycle things he has written before.

Basically his argument is that: “The Never Trumpers hold everyone responsible for the rise of Trumpism except, in any worthwhile way, themselves.” He never defines what he means by “worthwhile,” but he is quite specific about the shortcomings of one author – me.

And he’s made the same point at least four times, using nearly identical language. So it probably deserves a response.

Lozada snarks that when Never Trumpers acknowledge some culpability for the madness on the right “it’s more meh culpa than mea culpa.” He quotes me quite generously:

“Did we—did I—contribute to this prairie fire of bigotry and xenophobia that seemed to grip so many on the Right?” Sykes asks. His query proves largely rhetorical, however, with Sykes faulting himself at most for benign neglect. “For years, we ignored the birthers, the racists, the truthers, and other conspiracy theorists,” he writes.

They were like the obnoxious uncle at Thanksgiving, “whose quirks could be indulged or at least ignored.” Sykes indulged or at least ignored it all in the hope that “things would not fall apart, and principled conservatives would rise to the occasion.” But things did come undone, and conservatives didn’t meet the challenge.

In the book, he argues that Never Trumpers should actually be grateful to Trump, because “only with the rise of Trump did they think to interrogate the conservative dogma they’d long defended.” [Emphasis added.]

Before Trump, Lozada suggests, none of us raised any questions about the extremists, the birthers, the conspiracy theorists bigots, or the nutjobs.

Only with Trump did they begin to reconsider their role in encouraging a frenzied base. Only with Trump did they see the need to restore or reach for higher ideals. Had Trump come close but failed to win the 2016 Republican nomination, had the party establishment and donor networks eked out one more mainstream nominee while still capitalizing on anger and conspiracy to turn out the vote, these earnest books would not exist. The conscience and corrosion of conservatism, the mind of the Right, would remain undisturbed and unexamined.

So my mea culpa rings hollow to Lozada.

Now he frets over the “repudiation of the conservative mind”—a repudiation that transpired while respectable conservatives such as Sykes waited for someone else to yell “Stop!”

If only someone had seen the problem earlier; if only someone had said it was time to confront those crackpots

If only someone had written something like this:

Oh wait. I did. Back in 2013, in the cover story of a magazine I edited at the time.

Before Trump. Lozada can look it up.


Although he has since gotten over his qualms, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal had called Republicans “the stupid party.” But I thought Jindal was wrong, because the rot went much deeper. “The problem that dogs conservatives is not stupidity; it is crackpotism.”

I wrote:

The right’s critique of social democratic policies is not strengthened by calling Obama a communist or questioning his birth certificate; nor does it help the fight against the regulatory over-reach of the government to indulge in conspiracy theories about black helicopters.

In that 2013 article yelling “Stop,” I recounted William F. Buckley’s purge of the Birchers in the 1960s, and I wondered how he would have fared in the current media environment.

“There are now far more outlets for the voluble defense of crackpotism and denunciations of their critics. Talk radio — and this pains me to admit it — too often succumbs to the temptation to defend candidates who are in the process of immolating themselves.”

But I suggested that we still ought to emulate Buckley’s act of ideological hygiene. “As Buckley recognized in deciding to speak out against the fringes, the credibility of the right sometimes depends on the right’s willingness to engage in quality control. That’s still a good lesson.”

Going forward, I wrote, the problems for conservativism were both substantive and tactical.

The mandate for conservatives then is this: Limit the damage. Isolate the crackpots. Articulate your principles forcefully, but be smart about it. Do no harm. Win when you can, wait when you have to. And no more talk about rape, nullification, birth certificates, Kwanzaa or secession. Ever.

Donald Trump would not descend the golden escalator for another two years.

But Lozada is right: We should have done more and we still need to ask ourselves some tough questions. And I like the guy — his snark is often delicious, even when it is aimed at people I like.

But a little more research would have been nice before he came down to shoot the wounded.

The hits keep coming:

There are now 27 days to go.

Quick Hits

1. Donald Trump Is Not Pro-Life.

David French writes in Time:

The bottom line is that Trump will end his first term with the nation’s abortion laws largely intact and without engaging in a single serious effort to defund Planned Parenthood. He will also end his first term with a legacy of deception, failure, and callous disregard for the lives and health of even his friends and colleagues in the face of an infectious disease that has killed more than 200,000 of his fellow citizens.

Look at Donald Trump’s complete record. Examine all his rhetoric. Is his presidency characterized by words and deeds that affirm the “incomparable worth of the human person”? Has he treated “life on earth” as a “sacred reality” entrusted to him? The answer is clearly no. His selfish and reckless actions have cost lives. They’re still costing lives. By no fair measure is Donald Trump truly “pro-life.”

2. Who Are These Republicans?

Mona Charen has some questions:

This GOP is inhospitable to conservatives (see former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan among many others), moderates (see John Kasich), and people of decency and courage (see Mitt Romney). Rather than purging its ranks of kooks and conspiracists, it welcomes and courts them. Rather than fight fair, it seeks to win by keeping people from the polls. America needs a sane, serious, humane, center-right party that aims to persuade, not to dominate. This GOP is not it.

3. Questions for the VP Candidates

David Priess has some suggestions for tonight’s undercard debate:

Policy questions are a waste of time. A vice president does not set policy. He or she may not even have definitive input into the president’s decisions. What the VP nominees say on these issues does not matter.

So this year, with the two oldest presidential candidates in history on the ballot and the president currently infected with the coronavirus, the moderator should skip the theater and focus instead on the vice president’s constitutional duties.

Cheap Shots

1. Blame Game

2. Jesus Owes Trump Bigly

Deep Thoughts

1. How a Second Trump Term Could Degrade Democracy

Arch Puddington and David J. Kramer write in today’s Bulwark:

If Trump should somehow eke out a victory—or steal one—America would confront the likelihood that the president’s war against democratic standards, a campaign that has gained impetus over the past year, will be prosecuted with renewed vigor. Trump has already made clear that he regards the liberal institutions that check executive power as obstacles to be dispensed with and those who defend them as enemies to be sidelined or crushed.

In this, Trump can look to ready-made templates that have guided the actions of some of his favorite strongmen: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan. These men have built virtual one-party, or one-person, states through methods that are technically legal, fortified by near-total media and judicial domination, and sustained by a mafia-like economy in which the leader, his family, his cronies, and his oligarch supporters control the commanding heights.