Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Early in the new year, President Trump seemed in good shape to be reelected. The economy was booming, with record-setting stock-market highs and unemployment lows. The over three years of various inquisitions into “scandals” like the Russian collusion or Ukrainian quid pro quo had culminated in no evidence of any crimes, and in a failed impeachment conviction. The opposition Democrats looked increasingly likely to be settling one of two old, rich, white mediocrities as their standard-bearer for November, with nothing to recommend them other than utopian, expensive anti-free market policies and their irrational hatred of Donald Trump.
The more prudent prognosticators knew that despite such tail-winds, Trump still faced the greatest fear of every politician: events. Some are known possibilities, such as an economic downturn, a shooting war, or some Harvey Weinstein level of scandal. But no one foresaw that a pandemic starting in a Chinese wet market would incite mass hysteria and containment policies that have wounded our economy, tanked the market, raised unemployment, and threaten to bring on a deep recession, if not a depression.
What does all this mean for Trump’s chances to be reelected?
On the one hand, economic bad news usually overrides the advantage of being the incumbent, especially when it is accompanied by a foreign policy disaster, as Jimmy Carter learned when his reelection was hampered by, among many other things, the stagflation of the Seventies and the Iranian hostage crisis. But the current economic woes have not been caused by Trump’s or his party’s policies, which in fact created the boom in the first place. Nor does he face abroad anything as serious as the hostage crisis.
The current economic debacle is the consequence of an unforeseen contingency no state can adequately plan for. And unlike Carter’s blunders, Trump’s occasional misspeaking or exaggerations, all hyped and distorted by the media, have been redeemed by his swift move to ban all air travel from China, and a few weeks later from Europe as well. These actions no doubt have saved thousands of American lives.
Trump also has been lucky in his enemies: The NeverTrump media have continued their obsessive-compulsive habit of demonizing Trump’s decisions to the point that they circulate patent lies.
No, banning flights from China was not “racist,” but a reflection of the simple fact that the outbreak began in China and worsened by their secrecy and lies.
No, banning flights from Europe was not thoughtless disrespect to our allies, but common sense. Even the Europeans have seen the light, basically gutting their Schengen zone of free border-crossing between states by bringing back border controls.
No, Trump did not call the outbreak a “hoax,” a blatant, contrived misreading of his comments.
No, he did not cut funding for the CDC, another lie that even progressive outlets like AP and the Washington Post had to correct.
No, Trump’s “incompetent” leadership did not delay the production and distribution of test kits. Look to the federal, bureaucratic CDC and its network of intricate rules and regulations that hindered a more nimble response.
By this point, at least half of American voters have become used to the media and Dems crying wolf. Many voters no doubt will see these antics as a despicable search for partisan advantage at a time when the whole country faces a serious health crisis. What they see on the news nearly every day is Trump’s attention focused on resolving the crisis and instituting policies to soften the economic blow. At the same time, they also see the Democrats holding up legislation because they want to do a favor for powerful clients like unions, Green Energy grifters, Planned Parenthood, and the “diversity” racket. The RNC no doubt will constantly remind voters of this contrast come November.
Then there’s the way this crisis graphically reinforces Trump’s pull-back from the globalist, one-world paradigm and its scorn for national borders.
After the China virus invasion, how will the Dems sound when they start plumping for open borders, sanctuary cities, liberalized immigrant entry policies, the release of illegal alien felons, and the demonization of ICE?
Or when they intensify their war against carbon-based energy and fracking, the domestic development of which has made us nearly energy independent, no longer a hostage to the dysfunctional politics and disorder of most petrostates?
Or when they start up with stale charges of “racism” and “xenophobia” that they claim motivates Trump’s America First policies, when thousands are dying because China’s totalitarian regime lied about it and then tried to spin a preposterous conspiracy theory implicating U.S. soldiers, one given support by progressive chants of “racism”?
And how does the “global marketplace” and its fabled “harmony of interests” fare when a nuclear armed rival blatantly steals our intellectual property, cheats on its treaty obligations, and threatens to use against us its outsized dominance of our critical pharmaceuticals? Or a transnational institution like the U.N.’s World Health Organization, whose president was elected with China’s help, and has been paying China back by parroting its lies about the origins and infectability of the virus?
Finally, Trump will face in November one of the weakest presidential candidates in the postwar period. Joe Biden for decades has been a political hack, a serial plagiarist, and a shameless opportunist, as will become clear when in his campaign he has to pivot away from the wacky socialist programs like Medicare for All or the Green New Deal. His whole career he has carried water for credit-card companies and banks, making sure, for example that student loan debt cannot be forgiven through bankruptcy. The odor of corruption still clings to him and his family, including his brother as well as his son. Biden’s nice talk about China appears hinky given the sweetheart deals worth millions that Hunter secured from a Chinese investment fund and a private equity firm.
And on top of all that, he is showing clear signs of cognitive decline. Always a gaffe-meister and inappropriate squeezer of women and girls, the 77-year-old Joe’s outbursts, spatial confusion, bizarre comments, and tall tales have now gone beyond the typical politician who stretches the truth and spins facts. They have become frighteningly surreal. As the campaign progresses, and he appears on the debate stage with a candidate full of energy, confidence, and pizzazz, questions about Joe’s cognitive state and stamina will lead to further questions about his fitness to fill the most stressful, consequential job in the world. And on election day he may be damaged by the Bernie Bros who sit out the campaign, or actively work against it with protests or even violence. If the election is close, those internal enemies may tilt the scales.
We don’t know at this point whether this crisis will have peaked by November, how great the toll of dead by then, how deeply damaged the economy will be. In the coming weeks, if not days, Trump will face choices whose outcomes cannot be predicted. Should he let people go back to work and get the economy going again? Or should we stick with the radical social distancing that will worsen the economic damage every week it is in force. In other words, fix the economy at the price of more infected and dead, or let it continue to tank and cause more misery and suffering down the road––with the media peanut gallery ready to hiss, heckle, and whistle at his decisions. Don’t forget, Trump has done as well as he has in spite of a concerted, non-stop effort on the part of the media and the government agencies like the FBI and DOJ to cripple his administration. We have to assume that these efforts will redouble between now and then.
In the end, it all comes down to a critical mass of voters who have enough common sense and practical wisdom to filter out the noise and hysteria, and vote for the candidate who upholds America’s political and economic principles of freedom, enumerated rights, limited government, and self-rule. Right now, with irrational hoarding of toilet paper and eggs, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of common sense. If conditions don’t improve over the summer, fear and panic may make even a weak candidate attractive, if he promises to take control and manage people’s lives, and, as Tocqueville’s writes of “soft despotism,” “to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living.”
“Anxiety,” Kierkegaard said, “is the dizziness of freedom.” At times like these, freedom can appear a necessary sacrifice in order to find a seeming peace. November will be a plebiscite on that trade-off.
* * *