y Polish-born mother swore by two pet theories: that death might ignore you if you never mentioned its existence aloud and that poor vision would improve with age. So steadfast was she in these convictions that they eventually came to vex her. She died of a rare disorder at 67 and decades later her middle-aged son was diagnosed with an eye disease that often leads to blindness.
In America, blindness of the metaphorical kind has led many to adopt another sort of theory, this one political. It holds that heartfelt righteous indignation directed at a sitting, first-term president can undermine, if not cripple, his re-election chances.
As President Donald J. Trump readies his bid for a second term, many educated Americans cozy up to this enchantment. Emboldened by his impeachment at the hands of a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats, adversaries of all stripes see an opening. Here, they say, is a man so at home with boorish insult and deception that truth is a self-made function of what feels right to him at any given moment.
Such a childishly subjective vision of truth, critics add, has contaminated an office that until recently possessed global prestige regardless of its immediate occupant. Now the contamination will spread even further, as the Senate, which his allies control, puts him on a trial whose outcome will likely not only invalidate the impeachment but give ammunition to his supporters.
The purveyors of Trump outrage, not surprisingly, are Democratic Party progressives who, like many others, never considered the possibility of his presidency.
Trump — a Republican in name only — usually responds to such criticism in the way porn stars laugh off moralists: “But you watched me, didn’t you?” Or, much like former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (who faced but eluded countless legal charges), he blames all on Satanic foes. What was Trump doing when the House voted? He was campaigning, setting down a line of defense likely to be repeated often in the coming months. “While we’re creating jobs and fighting for Michigan,” he told an enthusiastic crowd in that state, “the radical left in Congress is consumed with envy and hatred and rage, you see what’s going on.”
Public and political debate in the United States has in fact become so raw that even impeachment feels less like a political verdict than the latest act in a running blood feud, by nature removed from all fair play.
Social media, dependent as it is on judgment, puts emotionalism ahead of critical thinking, with predictably divisive results. It is, to say the least, a wounded landscape, one that the impeachment process will only salt.
Yet, on the specifically rational subject of a sitting president winning a second term in office, recent American history, though wracked by all manner of messiness, is remarkably and consistently lucid. Barking and braying aside, an incumbent’s prospects are flat out good. And while impeachment is a serious matter, and an indelible stain, it is a federal drama that does not necessarily carry over into the homes of those far removed from (if not contemptuous of) Washington’s “radical” censures.
Over the decades, a number of reasonable and persuasive presidential challenges have been thwarted by voters either loyal to the White House occupant or convinced that those aligned against him were over-educated elitists chronically allergic to blunt-force patriotism. In a word, leftists.
Lately, the urban-suburban-rural contest (now color coded into red for conservative and blue for liberal) has regressed toward 19th-century-style verbal brawling in the vein of what American poet Walt Whitman once identified as the “barbaric yawp,” the loudness of the collective public run amok. Yawping is very much back in vogue, barbarism of speech nestled by its side.
Yet even a cursory look at recent history should chasten those convinced that Trump — now formally charged with having abused his power — is destined to sink beneath the muck and mire of his own making. Since the early 1900s, even the most contested presidents — some, like Republican Richard Nixon, reviled by “radicals” — have usually won re-elections, at times with surprising ease.
Misgivings about the state of the economy, not scandals or woeful character, have tripped up most one-term presidents. A weak job market cuts deeper than deviousness, considered by some as a flaw built into anyone who aspires to high office.
Scrapping a sitting president requires hard work and luck. Nixon nearly survived the Watergate scandal, undone only when court rulings made public the worst of his dirty laundry. In his second term, Bill Clinton survived a sexual scandal that for a time seemed certain to lead to his ouster.
Going back further, to 1932, incumbent Iowa Republican Hebert Hoover, who came to office in boom days, fell afoul of the Great Depression. He stood no chance against Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt who soon became something of a national father figure. His remarkable four-term “reign” (he died in 1945), which came at a time when the Democratic Party enjoyed a deep support in the American South, resulted in a constitutional amendment limiting the presidency to two consecutive terms.
In the 1950s, loquacious Democrat Adlai Stevenson twice ran against World War II general-turned President Dwight Eisenhower and was twice humiliated.
In 1968, Nixon re-emerged from political oblivion to spite his critics. With the once-Democratic South turning to third-party candidate George Wallace, Nixon won the first of two terms, the second with pulverizing ease. He consistently labeled his critics as extreme leftists and radicals and was mocked relentlessly in “The New York Times” and the “Washington Post.” But he had little trouble, like Trump now, in spinning his radical yarn in the hinterlands, putting his faith in what he called “the silent majority,” those resentful of the East Coast intelligentsia and its allies in the bureaucratic federal government.
The Watergate unraveling began soon after his 1972 re-election, but it still took 18 months to fully play out. Even then, some were certain he’d been victimized by those on the left who’d hated him for decades.
In the autumn of 1976, lame duck President Gerald Ford faced Democrat Jimmy Carter, a youthful former Georgia governor who pledged to erase Nixon’s ugly legacy and bring down soaring gasoline prices.
Though Carter won, barely, he proved unable to rein in the deepening recession and made matters worse through poor foreign policy choices regarding the Soviet Union and Iran.
Enter former Hollywood actor and one-time Democrat Ronald Reagan, yet another liberal bogeyman, who crushed Carter to win the first of two terms, both with ease. His staunch conservatism came with a charm he’d picked up in his Hollywood days. He, too, faced scandal, with the Iran-Contra hearings exposing squalid aspects of his management. But had his mental alertness remained intact, and had the law permitted it, Reagan might well have won a third term.
Instead, Reagan was succeeded by his vice president, George H. W. Bush, who soon met the same fate that had befallen Hoover and Carter. With the economy worsening, Bush was perceived as aloof and lacking in ideas.
He fell to the fresh-faced Bill Clinton, a cheerful Arkansas Democrat (and known womanizer) whose big ideas occasionally left Bush literally speechless. Third party candidate Ross Perot, a billionaire businessman (who helped set Trump’s political table), divided the Republican base.
Clinton also won twice, though his sexual appetite tainted his legacy and continues to influence views on the character of his ambitious wife, Hillary. Early on, however, his relaxed, quick-thinking manner won applause even from rivals. Portraying him as a radical was impossible.
In 2000, presidential son and former Texas Governor George W. Bush faced former Clinton Vice President Al Gore. Bush’s acrimonious victory took months to decide and deepened the partisan mud-slinging that had kicked into high gear during the Clinton sex scandal.
Bush was given a helping hand in the worst of ways when Muslim terrorists attacked New York City and Washington. He waged war on both Afghanistan and Iraq, though the stated motives behind the Iraq campaign were soon viewed as deceitful. Bush’s support appeared to wane, and for a time — in the mind of liberals at least — he appeared vulnerable to defeat.
But the doomsayers again missed the mark. In 2004, Bush won narrowly, some stricken Democrats vowing to leave the country.
Four years later, Barack Obama, a moderate Democrat and Illinois senator, perhaps the least expected presidential candidate in modern times, won the White House thanks mostly to swing voters who had come to associate Republicans with financial hubris and foul doings on Wall Street. Yet Obama’s glamour faded as his first term progressed. He faced furious backlash from the extreme right Tea Party movement and muckrakers, Trump among them, who questioned his American birth and patriotic “authenticity.”
Obama won again in 2012 — a lukewarm victory at best — largely because swing voters found opponent Mitt Romney uninspiring and opted to uphold the two-term tradition (Obama helped his credibility by finding and killing Osama Bin Laden).
But his second term did not go well. His prudence was derided as weakness. He seemed only marginally interested in China’s economic ascent and untouched by those who saw Hispanic immigration as an economic threat. A health plan intended to help low-income citizens was increasingly branded as socialism in disguise.
By 2016, simmering social and racial rage (shaped during the Tea Party surge) acquired an unlikely representative in Trump.
So it was that a kitschy New York City real estate tycoon, thin-skinned and vindictive, made himself into an unapologetic emissary of red state rancor.
Up against an adversary not much helped by her Clinton surname, he won by an Electoral College whisker.
Three years into his divisive first term, he finds himself under siege by doubters similar to those who challenged (and eventually ousted) Nixon.
At the same time, the rules of politics have changed. Even impeachment, an ostensibly informed response to his deportment, possesses partisan overtones so deep as to call the entire process into question. This era combines web warfare with the vaudevillian self-promoting antics of the early 1900s, when Yellow journalism and dramatic bias dominated social and political debate. In that period, character assassination was routine.
Nixon would later ooze paranoia, but only behind closed doors. Trump proudly scorns his enemies and pays no mind to party protocols, let alone a chamber, the House of Representatives, populated by enemies. In that sense, he’s a new breed of president who operates outside the shackles of civil restraint and as such has little in common with those who came before him.
So will he win a second term? Does a president saddled with impeachment charges stand a chance?
It’s a question best addressed through a meshwork of interlocking and at times repetitive reflections, most of which have little to do with the charges leveled against him or his coming trial in the Senate. Here, by rough categories, is a sampling of those reflections:
• Scandal and impeachment efforts: The House impeachment charges and other juridical and legislative challenges to the Trump presidency, while extraordinary in their own right, are highly unlikely to impede Trump’s 2020 ambitions. In the case of impeachment, which Trump has called an “all-out war on the presidency”, the Republican Senate will soon put an end to the legal theatrics by voting to acquit the president. Given the limited attention span of modern Americans, the House’s December decision to impeach may be withered news by summer. Moreover, Trump has consistently parried all criticism against him into a broader liberal-radical conspiracy to “con” the public, with impeachment now added to this plethora of “radical” cons. Though no first-term president in modern history has ever faced an impeachment trial (Bill Clinton’s sex scandal-driven trial came at the end of his second), a nagging sense of Balkan-style enmity — ideological differences transformed into political, skin color–like divides — permeates action and reaction on both sides.
At times, Trump seems to take a leaf from the self-aggrandizing (and genocidal) behavior of Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milošević, who in the 1990s harped on millennia-old grandeur to inspire anti-Muslim vindictiveness. The fretting of Trump’s opponents, in turn, resembles that of nervous NATO, a sagging organization Trump happens to loathe. To watch this adolescent but wounding combat is to behold a vicious circle before which all political maturity has collapsed.
Democrats were determined to finally land a blow to Trump’s midsection, and that they did. But it is hardly a knockout punch. Through the prism of Trump’s own standards, he is guilty of no more than unsportsmanlike conduct, a small-potatoes penalty in the standard warfare that is American football.
Unless Trump is convicted by the Senate, an unimaginable outcome, what he calls the “all-out war” will become campaign ammunition for both sides, one using it as proof of deep presidential dishonor, the other as yet another example of never-ending federal intolerance for leaders who do things their way.
As for the tales of personal and diplomatic bullying that so animate Democrats and assorted presidential critics, these same tales give admirers of Trump’s my-way-or-the-highway managerial style even greater license to appreciate their besieged but unbowed leader, whose rudeness is viewed as a manly tool all but necessary to survival in the jungle that is the bloated federal state. In the end, the congressional hearings designed to oust him may do Trump adversaries more harm than good, since there is little indication the motives behind the impeachment process enjoy much support in regions critical to Trump’s re-election bid.
Sexual dalliances, including the unabashed payment of hush money, enough to have undone previous presidents, pose no threat to Trump, who turns the tables by advertising his macho appetites and the power they suggest. A damning 2019 book by investigative journalist Bob Woodward did Trump little harm. So far, none of his many fired cabinet members, and not even the former “Russiagate” special prosecutor, have seen fit to make inflammatory public remarks about their ex-boss, as if beholden to Masonic or even Mafia-style omertà, the Italian underworld’s age-old deferential code of silence. Loyalty, fear, and party priorities also play a role in Trump’s shielding from any kind of collective denunciation. No such calculations protected the feckless Nixon, who in the end was undone by the congressional testimony of John Dean, a high-ranking aide. But the Nixon age was governed by implicit rules of statesmanship that kept most crudeness out of the public arena. Civic morality was factored into views of free speech. The Trump age, in which gossip and fact are interchangeable, and in which civility plays no role, is not similarly hemmed in, nor does it admit, let alone respect, concepts of restraint or compromise, portrayed as betrayals of emotional “ownership.” Like beliefs, almost invariably raw, cotton to each other out on social media, meaning Trump is monster or hero, or of no interest.
• Media relations: Trump’s fiercest criticism comes from Democratic-leaning mass media, pitting him in the cross-hairs of the same foes aligned against Nixon and Reagan. But coastal disdain — criticism emanating from New York, Washington, Boston, Los Angeles, and so on — has rarely tipped the scales, since New York, Massachusetts, and California are traditionally Democratic states. No matter how reasoned the criticism, it cannot be factored into presidential forecasting.
• Resistance: No notable national consensus exists either for or against Trump, since partisan divisions make such consensus obsolete. Moreover, the most evident public demonstrations against Trump came early in his presidency. Since then, the battleground has been on the web, which is far less easy to track.
• Perception: His backers hail him as a pioneering anti-intellectual figure who has set aside the shackling liberal language of political correctness to oppose urban suppositions of social, racial, and sexual inclusiveness. He has also resisted the idea of America’s “one-of-many” place in the global community, retreating from environmental and pro-democracy advocacy. To his supporters, these are liberating gestures no one in his position has ever before dared to articulate, let alone embrace. His detractors insist he is an arrogant narcissist whose instincts are fundamentally dishonest and may have already poisoned the image of the presidency beyond repair. Feelings run deep on both sides. But no Nixon-era silent majority can exist in the age of social media. All closed doors are ajar.
Despite the rancid depth of these conflicting passions, no objective reason exists to presume that those who sided with him in 2016 will take a cue from the “New York Times” and defect in 2020. On the contrary, states he narrowly captured four years ago may well rally around him to reinforce their anti-establishment point.
• Fake news: The animosity between Republican presidents and the leading Democratic-leaning East Coast dailies goes back decades. Nixon’s first term Vice President Spiro Agnew labeled their journalists “nattering nabobs of negativity,” an amusingly alliterative line concocted by speechwriter William Safire, who would go on to become a conservative columnist at the “New York Times.” Many-times Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a real estate tycoon like Trump, insisted all critiques were generated by communist sympathizes, an “us vs. them” strategy that won him the support of Italy’s “red state” south.
Trump’s fake news maneuver has been shrewder because it comes at a time when mass media is splintered, with volatile social media challenging traditional news channels as credible news sources. This fragmentation and the emotionalism intrinsic to the acts of Tweeting and blogging has caused concepts of objectivity to come unraveled, leaving once respected bastions of critical reporting to preach only to their own choirs.
Americans now read and watch those who already reflect views they hold. To them, objectivity is a liberal ruse intended to make favoritism more palatable, precisely what Trump sought when he repeatedly mocked even visibly accurate reports regarding crowd size or numbers of supporters.
Liberal media, its evidence-based dispatches automatically derided by some as fake or partisan, has by necessity turned more aggressive, openly showing anti-Trump cards. But by doing so, it has played into the hands of a president deeply familiar with the New York and Washington media establishments. This allows him to routinely portray himself, Nixon-style, as the target of witch hunts and assorted “enemy” conspiracies.
The fake news challenge, absurd when phrased in Agnew’s ridiculing terms, has convinced many otherwise balanced citizens that editors and publishers are, in fact, propagandists with “agendas,” transforming the virtues of free speech into a rambling chaos of competing, and often contradictory voices few take entirely seriously, let alone respect. The result is even greater emotionalism on both sides, which in the hinterlands favors the seemingly besieged Trump. When it comes to playing poker with media, he is nobody’s fool.
That will not change unless a personal and systematic involvement in illegal acts is proved, something that in the case of Watergate and Nixon took two years.
• The economy and world affairs: For now at least, Trump faces no economic or foreign policy reversal that might undo him domestically. An economic slowdown — with farmers and coal miners still grumbling — is not a recession. Homes are selling less briskly but that is a traditionally volatile indicator.
Arguments for and against his massive application of tariffs have yet to produce any strong systematic opposition.
Even among critics, Trump is credited for taking on China head-on, which Obama was unwilling to do. His poor relationships with some global leaders are perceived by some as a reflection of the kind of bluntness that was missing from previous American policy.
• Isolationism: Trump has repeatedly made it clear he has no particular interest in the ebb and flow of foreign affairs. Of Turkey’s recent incursion into Syria, he said, “It’s not our problem.” Most Americans outside the famous East Coast corridor would likely agree, unless the foreign policy has an impact on trade and domestic income at a corporate level. The “not our problem” approach mimics the tack the country took during both 20th-century world wars, before being sucked into each. Unlike global-minded presidents, he prefers seeing the United States as an island that can make more or less profit from shrewd business deals with other nations.
Though he has made inroads in U.S. dealings with North Korea, moral and ethical questions are not in his purview, nor is the Statue of Liberty’s invitation to the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses. He’s a bottom-line man in every sense, which creates a profound disagreement with those who see America as a nation whose mission (or Manifest Destiny) is to lead, Cold War-style, by compassionate example. Again, though, he is not a New Deal man, not a Peace Corps man, not a make peace in the Middle East man. He is an American, by which he means to say a self-interested party who also happens to represent a nation. In this manner, he is the anti-John F. of his era, burying memories of Camelot for good.
• The Electoral College map: Few of the major states that endorsed him in 2016, including Texas and Florida, have shown signs of remorse or restiveness, leaving the 2020 burden on Pennsylvania and the Midwest, which favored him by very slight margins. That could change, and if it does, his prospects would be immediately altered. In essence, anti-Trump states are likely to remain that way, while those who supported could pull back — though, in a partisan climate, no objective reason exists to suppose they would.
• Campaign promises: Of the two campaign promises Trump swore by, the dismantling of Obama’s health plan and a border wall against Latino immigrants, he tried but failed to achieve the former. This he can blame on his own party, which broke ranks in sufficient numbers to stall him. He has, nonetheless, worked to cripple the plan. His wall pledge is going ahead, thanks to funding obtained by declaring the border situation a national emergency, a dubious method of circumvention. But he cannot be accused, as some presidents rightly were in the past, of ignoring his campaign-trail pledges.
• Supreme Court: Thanks to Obama-era congressional stonewalling and a retirement, Trump has successfully added two conservative Supreme Court justices whose views will likely tilt the court away from socially progressive rulings. Even abortion may in time come up for review, which would please evangelical leaders, who want it blocked at both federal and state levels.
• Midterm elections: While Democrats regained control of the House of Representatives in the 2016 congressional voting, they lost seats in the Senate. The House result naturally cheered Trump opponents (the impeachment hearings followed) but failed to suggest a dramatic upheaval in the offing.
In 1994, Clinton lost both houses in what was promoted as a Republican resurgence likely to weigh against Clinton’s re-election bid. But Clinton faced a relatively weak opponent in Bob Dole and, with Ross Perot again playing spoiler, won a second term — this despite clear indications the country was moving rightward.
In 1954, it was the Democrats — still dominant in Southern states — that won both houses, suggesting incumbent Eisenhower might be beatable in the 1956 presidential race. Yet, he won handily.
These results appear to confirm what political scientists have long said about the American electorate: voters are emotional, sentimental, and tend to side with the candidate, not the party, at least at a presidential level. Thus, the 2016 House result cannot be seen as a personal rebuke to Trump.
• The campaign: Chronically boastful, Trump is also an indefatigable campaigner who relishes ovations and is genuinely animated by crowd turnout and excitement, whether real or imagined. His impact on audiences, pro and con, is beyond doubt both rousing and arousing. He’s a carnival barker interested above all in promoting his show in the most entertaining of ways, which in distracted times means resorting to sarcasm, insults, and tall tales.
• “The north England scenario“: In the months preceding the June 2016 Brexit referendum in Britain, many pundits suggested the voting power concentrated in such “euro” cities as London and Manchester would offset, albeit narrowly, the hinterland trend in favor of Britain leaving the European Union. This proved wrong.
A similar miscalculation followed in the U.S., as Hillary Clinton was unable to win sufficient support in mostly rural swing states, this opening the door to Trump.
More recently, again in the British arena, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while seemingly sure to win December 2019 general elections, was not imagined to in the manner he did, by landslide. He secured a remarkable parliamentary majority that essentially allows him to dictate Tory terms. Voters in Britain’s generally Labor Party-friendly northlands, while no lovers of Johnson, had apparently tired of the endless Brexit acrimony in London (as well as infighting within Labor itself) and chose to clear up the mess by moving against traditional grain and to the right.
Though no one at present believes Trump could win a landslide victory, such an outcome (even if he loses New York and California) is not out of the question if some voters presumed to be tired of Trump instead turn out to be weary of Washington anti-Trumpism and choose to teach haughty politicians yet another lesson. This is the “north England scenario,” and volatile times make it impossible to discount.
• The tune-out (or, “who cares?”) factor: With or without Trump, disaffection toward politics and politicians runs deep. The last time 60 percent of registered voters turned out was in 1968, the year both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The number was well above 70 percent through most of the 19th-century, with Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 first-term election bringing out 81.2 percent of the voting-age public, compared to only 49 percent when Bill Clinton ran for a re-election in 1996. In 2016, fewer than 140 million voted when 250 million were eligible.
Independent of these figures, the Trump presidency has had an unsettling psychological effect on some voters, who found his election surreal enough to seek a refuge from politics and its headlines.
This alienation does not bode well for Democrats, who depend on ardor (witness the 2008 Obama groundswell) and large voter turnouts.
Aside from these critical points, there is the matter of who will run against Trump, or who should. FDR, Carter, and Clinton, in addition to running against opponents sullied by a weak domestic economy, were vibrant, engaging figures. FDR was a devoted campaigner who later crafted a huge radio audience in so-called Fireside Chats. Carter played up his humble Georgia roots. The supremely confident Clinton could be ruthless or charming at will.
Today’s Democrats offer no such character. To make matters even worse, a festering rift between full-bore progressives led by Bernie Sanders and Trump-hater Elizabeth Warren has moved the party away from potentially appealing to dissatisfied Republicans. Though the party still has veteran centrist Joe Biden, the rift seems crippling. Moreover, no one in this group — already branded “leftist” labels — seems to possess the skill and shape-shifting personality needed to change the minds of those undecided voters who finally embraced Trump. In fact, undecided voters may be far fewer this time around since Trump has made a powerful impression, whether uplifting or demoralizing.
An outsider (or insider in the vein of Michael Bloomberg) could still intervene, defying predictions, but it’s an unlikely prospect.
Trump pitted against Warren, Sanders, or Biden is uninspiring. A candidacy by any of them would echo the uphill battle faced by John Kerry, whose 2004 attempt to unseat the younger Bush yet again showed the limits of urban ardor. New York City, Boston, Chicago, L.A. backed Kerry in droves.
“Help is on the way,” was Kerry’s campaign slogan, but help never came.
That Biden is now under direct attack by Trump (and that, according to impeachment accusations, Trump tried to connive against him) might suggest he poses a credible threat. At the same time, Biden is from Delaware, not Ohio, and carries an Obama-era yoke Trump could exploit. Biden ironically might have been better suited to run in place of the divisive Hillary Clinton, who won voters but not states.
But that was then.
Now, Trump is an incumbent, an advantage in itself. He also knows who likes him and who doesn’t (and never will), a strategic advantage. Obama’s “Yes, we can,” omnipresent in 2008, was harder to hear in 2012.
This quieting has yet to infiltrate Trump’s “America First” big-top, and there’s a reason. As much as he is a president, he is also the host and master of ceremonies of a national reality show that many live to watch while driving some liberals to nervous collapse. A madcap secular evangelist on whom even impeachment scars can be made to look like stigmata, Trump is too spontaneous and ego-happy to tune out, let alone to retreat, as the Watergate-wounded Nixon did, into alcoholic solitude. And Trump’s unabashedly boorish presidential show, loved or loathed, doesn’t seem ripe for cancellation any time soon.