President Donald Trump finally seems to have noticed that he’s losing the election.
Trump has sought to project confidence about his odds of triumphing over Joe Biden, even as the pandemic has blazed across the country, the economy has tanked, and his poll numbers have sagged. In the midst of an ever-worsening national crisis that his administration has given up on even pretending to contain, Trump has taken solace in extreme selectivity: his high approval ratings within the shrinking Republican Party—96 percent, he noted in a recent tweet—and his approval ratings from Rasmussen Reports, a pollster that has generally shown higher favorability for the president than any other and whose work FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver has described as “mediocre.”
But at some point over the past couple of weeks, as the countdown to November 3 crossed the 100-day mark and Trump’s polling against Biden failed to substantially improve, the cold light of reality began to pierce the walls of the White House.
The president hasn’t admitted publicly that he’s losing, of course. That sort of honesty—acknowledging that he might be anything other than a winner or a “killer”—is too much of a humiliation for him. But his tweet suggesting that the election be postponed, along with a flood of other comments meant to undermine public faith in the electoral process, speaks to his anxiety about what might loom in his future. “2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” he warned, pondering, “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” As Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Martin, and Reid J. Epstein of The New York Times wrote, Trump’s tweet was “one of the few clear signs that the president now realizes how deep a hole he has dug for himself in his re-election effort.”
A normal political figure, understanding that his untenable position is a function of the coronavirus crisis and the resulting economic catastrophe, would attempt to improve his electoral position by addressing the multilayered crisis itself. But that’s not Trump’s style.
Doing so, after all, would require acknowledging his failure to date. And although some part of Trump seems to understand that he’s losing, no part of him yet seems ready to recognize that the chief reason for that is failure on his part. Such reflection would be hard for even an emotionally healthy politician, as it would require taking some measure of responsibility for more than 150,000 American deaths.
And so he sows doubt about the integrity of the election—a theme to which Trump has pivoted aggressively over the past week. The significance of this effort is not simply, or even chiefly, the authoritarian hint that Trump might delay the election, a suggestion that depends on a power the president does not have and that was rebuked broadly even among the Republican Party faithful in the Senate. The significance, rather, is the suggestion that if the election is held on time—as it will be—and if a lot of people vote by mail, and if Trump loses, that the election should somehow be rendered illegitimate. “Mail ballots are very dangerous for this country because of cheaters,” he commented at the White House on July 31.
This game isn’t new. Trump played it last election cycle too—constantly warning of rigged polls and fraudulent ballots in the run-up to November 2016—and for the same reason. Remember that Trump didn’t expect to win in 2016 any more than anyone else expected him to. The strategy even makes sense—that is, setting aside such matters as respect for democracy and the constitutional system. If you’re not going to win in a fair fight, painting the fight as unfair serves a number of useful purposes. Now as then, it creates a grievance-based excuse for a loss. It offers, at least if the race is close, a narrative basis for contesting the outcome, politically, if not legally. And at a purely emotional level, it protects Trump from having to face failure.
Less logical is Trump’s other move in recent weeks: his appeal to white voters living what the president has awkwardly termed the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.” Among the demographics with whom Trump’s approval ratings have cratered are suburbanites, particularly the white suburban women who helped push him to victory in 2016. Biden, wrote CNN’s Harry Enten recently, “is earning a historic amount of support for a Democrat” in the suburbs. And Trump and his campaign seem to have noticed, unleashing efforts to frighten suburb dwellers back to the Republican Party by warning of violence resulting from a Biden presidency and playing on racist themes about the supposed danger of affordable housing. “You will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood,” Trump wrote on Twitter. His campaign ads warn of a crime-ridden dystopia.
Trump is at his most comfortable when stoking crises; this is the man, after all, who began his administration by warning of “American carnage.” In an election in which he is at a disadvantage and suddenly facing the terrifying prospect of becoming a loser, harping on fears of racialized violence helps put him back in his comfort zone. It’s the campaign equivalent of a security blanket.
The trouble is that there is next to no data that support the notion that, amid the crises the country is currently facing, suburban women are clamoring for protection of the right to redline, living in fear of urban violence encroaching on their suburban paradises, or prioritizing confederate monuments over disease prevention. Rather, the data suggest the near opposite. As Emily Badger and Nate Cohn of The New York Times recently summarized, as of June, 59 percent of suburban voters disapproved of Trump; even more disapprove of his stances on race, and 65 percent “had a favorable view of the Black Lives Matter movement.” In other words, suburban voters not only disapprove of Trump and prefer Biden to him, but they specifically don’t approve of his performance with respect to the very racial issues on which he wishes to court them. In fact, they express considerable sympathy for the supposed foe he is trying to pit them against.
Trump is not wrong to try to recover his support among white suburbanites; indeed, he cannot possibly win without doing so, at least to some degree. But appealing to them on the basis of positions relatively few of them hold and issues on which majorities disapprove of his performance makes little sense.
But it’s not as though Trump is reading this data and coming up with a responsive strategy. Rather, the strategy derives from Trump’s crude habits of thinking: He has a long history of assuming that other people hold the same prejudices that he does. A white Justice Department lawyer who sued Trump Management Company in 1973 for discrimination against Black tenants later recalled Trump commenting to her, “You know, you don’t want to live with them either.”
The same dynamic is at play in his suburban fearmongering today. He believes at some deep level that the white suburbanite must share his attitudes—even if she is too cowed by cultural mores to admit it. Because he is not capable of training his instincts to respond to reality, the fact that he wants her to see him as her champion means that she must actually do so.
Except that, in fact, the data offer a better window into the reality of voter attitudes than do Trump’s instincts. And the election will be held on November 3, with mail-in voting allowed in many jurisdictions. The glimmer of reality that entered the White House remains just a glimmer—enough to change the quality of Trump’s denial but not yet enough to shake him awake. Of course, this assumes that anything could.