Will Americans vote against Trump’s behavior or for his achievements?
Practically the entire issue to be resolved on Election Day is the question of whether a president who has had one of the most successful first terms has been transformed — by a combination of the less attractive vagaries of his personality and the most unrelenting hate campaign in the history of American media and politics — into someone who could be defeated by Joe Biden, a personally well-liked but partially senescent political mediocrity with a record of plagiarism, erroneous judgments on important issues, and alleged dubious financial activities by family members exploiting his office.
Donald Trump’s public personality is an acquired taste — or not. Some of his antics make even his supporters wince. He turned the first presidential debate this year, where he had a winning argument, a stronger grasp of the facts and a more forceful television personality than his opponent, from a victory waiting to happen into an excuse for many people to vote against him because of his overbearing rudeness in interrupting the moderator and Biden. On points, insofar as they could be extracted from the din of contending voices, Trump won, but all polls and one’s instinct confirm that he lost, entirely because of his excessive belligerence.
It is astonishing that so capable a man — who made billions of dollars in a very tough business, who devised a form of television entertainment and made a success of it for 14 years, who developed a technique of branding his name and translating it into election to the country’s highest office, who utilized the social media companies directed by political enemies to end-run the serried ranks of his foes in the traditional media, and who governed effectively despite unprecedented pseudo-legal harassments — could be so slow a learner in some areas of elemental public relations.
But this is the issue: Trump attacked the entire political system and, for a long time, had no more admirers among Republican officials than among Democrats; he carried just enough of the public to be elected president. Since he was attempting to evict the entire bipartisan post-Reagan political establishment in Washington, they naturally locked arms against him and showed both talents of improvisation and great tenacity in throwing a succession of completely phony charges at him, aiming to destroy his presidency.
In these circumstances, it is difficult to understand why — since he showed such methodical suavity in taking over the Republican Party’s leadership in Washington and winning over even previously severe critics in the Republican congressional caucuses — he didn’t extend the effort to the public, or even to the usual posturing of bipartisan bonhomie that creates the general Washington ambience to which all factions of both parties ultimately are pledged to make the system work and serve the country. His enemies were so full of hate and fear that a few gracious gestures early on might have gone a long way to separate the Democrats from that majority of Americans that is always prepared to give a new president a chance.
The result of always counter-punching, never conceding anything and continuing his often hilarious personal attacks on his opponents, has wearied the public and enabled the Democrats to pretend that the president is responsible for the atmosphere of chaos, which they in fact generated by the incessant attacks of the rabidly pro-Democratic media. The president’s irritation with the desperate hostility to him of Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans is understandable but it can scarcely have been a surprise, since he promised to evict them all. If he had managed a more philosophical response, the country would have sympathized with him over the many betrayals and indiscretions committed against him, including those from inside the White House.
The consequence of his unique election, as the only president never to have held a public office, elected or unelected, or an important military command, is that we now have a contest between recognition of his outstanding achievements as a political newcomer in unprecedentedly difficult circumstances, and an attitude of often irrational hatred that has been confected against him and to which he has, in some degree, inadvertently contributed. If this were an unsuccessful presidency, the possible defeat of it would be of no great importance. But largely lost in the tremendous controversy over the Trump phenomenon are his achievements.
One of the most disgraceful bipartisan instances of protracted misgovernment in American history was the collaboration between both parties, and both Congress and the White House, in tolerating the mass entry of unskilled illegal immigration. For Democrats, that led to the “sanctuary cities” and vast numbers of people whom they could recruit as voters, even though they were ineligible as non-citizens; for many Republican employers, this illegal immigration provided a tremendous source of cheap labor. The result was the practical impossibility of the lower 20 percent of American wage-earners making any progress at all and the dangerous overloading of the welfare, health care, education and law enforcement resources of many southwestern states.
In stopping almost all of this illegal immigration while incentivizing investment in enterprise zones in low-income and largely minority areas, the Trump administration sharply reduced the numbers of people in poverty and effectively eliminated unemployment. It also became the first important jurisdiction in the world where the lowest 20 percent of income-earners were, in percentage terms, gaining ground more quickly than the highest 10 percent — a beginning, at last, to deal with the advanced world’s complicated problem of growing income disparity.
The Biden candidacy is shackled to a far-left program of tax increases, ill-considered commitments to “green” goals and an assault on the petroleum industry, as well as a war on anything other than unionized public schools and another blank check to an academic community that is increasingly hostile to freedom of expression. Apart from Biden’s limitations, his party is profoundly tainted by its cohabitation this past summer of riots with urban guerrillas and outright terrorists masquerading as crusaders for civil rights. The Democrats remain a party anchored in the corrupt quagmires of the misgovernment of many of the nation’s largest cities — New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and many others.
We will learn on Nov. 3 (or, one hopes, shortly after) whether the greatest smear campaign in American history — even if its subject has, to some extent, encouraged it — and censorship of inconvenient political news by the main social media, will arrest Trump’s pre-COVID progress toward more generalized prosperity and a foreign policy protective of legitimate American strategic interests. The United States has never before explicitly voted for tax increases and a de facto curtailment of freedom of expression; this could be a first, and not a very promising one.
Conrad Black is an essayist, former newspaper publisher, and author of ten books, including three on Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Follow him on Twitter @ConradMBlack.