Addressing Americans from the Oval Office on Wednesday night, Donald Trump looked as if he had just seen a ghost – the ghost of elections future.
The U.S. President had an easy time of it in recent months, as he watched the Democratic candidates vying to take him on in November tear one another down, the stock market extend its bull run and the U.S. economy continue a years-long hiring spree. But in the space of a week, his bid for a second term has gone from a near-sure thing to a shaky prospect.
The Democrats are getting their act together, rallying behind a flawed, but broadly appealing candidate, in former vice-president Joe Biden. Meanwhile, Mr. Trump’s approval rating of choice – the stock market – has turned on him, violently.
Any presidential candidate who lives by the stock market deserves to die by it. And no U.S. president has taken as much personal credit for the rise in the Dow Jones Industrial Average during his tenure as Mr. Trump. It is only fitting that he be made to wear its collapse.
Trillions of dollars have been erased from the value of American stock portfolios in recent days, as investors anticipate a possible coronavirus-induced recession. The worst might have been avoided had Mr. Trump stepped up early to co-ordinate a global response to halt the virus’s spread. Instead, he spooked markets by acting as if the coronavirus was not that big of a deal.
By Wednesday night, Mr. Trump’s message had changed dramatically. After minimizing the coronavirus threat to Americans for days, he was suddenly telling them to heed the “guidance” on “social distancing” from federal and local health officials. During his seven-minute speech, read in a manner resembling that of a prisoner under duress, he looked, well, ghost orange.
The speech, reportedly drafted by the architect of the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies, Stephen Miller, was also loaded with dog whistles that laid bare its underlying goal of pinning fault for the spread of this “foreign virus” on the Chinese and Europeans. Had they not dropped the ball, Mr. Trump intimated, COVID-19 would never have reached U.S. shores.
“The European Union failed to take the same precautions [as the U.S.] and restrict travel from China and other hot spots,” Mr. Trump said, claiming that U.S. clusters of COVID-19 “were seeded by travellers from Europe.” Then, he announced a 30-day suspension of all travel from Europe, a measure as unprecedented as it is potentially ineffective, since it exempts Britain.
But the travel ban is a more of a political measure than a public health one. No doubt, the White House will do what it can to contain the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. But Mr. Trump’s speech seemed singularly designed to deflect any blame for its failure to do so on the open border policies favoured by Democrats. It may be all he’s got to go on by November.
Mr. Trump’s apologists, such as radio host Rush Limbaugh, are already preparing for that possibility. “Nothing like wiping out the entire U.S. economy with a biothreat from China, is there?” Mr. Limbaugh quipped on his Wednesday show, suggesting the spread of the coronavirus had been a deliberate act by China to undermine its rival hegemon.
It may already be too late to prevent what is now deemed a global pandemic by the World Health Organization from imperilling the lives of thousands of North Americans, overwhelming our health-care systems and driving the global economy into a recession. If that is the case, Mr. Trump’s argument for re-election will have all but evaporated. A strong economy has been the only bright spot of his presidency. It has no other redeeming qualities. It just doesn’t.
A few of Mr. Trump’s policies – his tax cuts and loosening of business regulations – have no doubt delivered a boost to the U.S. economy over the past couple of years. But they carry negative long-term consequences for the U.S. deficit and greenhouse gas emissions. The same goes for Mr. Trump’s protectionist trade policies, which will hurt millions of U.S. consumers far more than they will help a relatively small number of workers.
The downsides of Mr. Trump’s policies were eventually bound to become evident, even to working-class voters, though perhaps not before November’s election. But with a coronavirus-related crash now in the offing, there is not much Mr. Trump can do but to pray. His hopes for re-election, like the Dow Jones, are going south fast.
The stock market has “taken a big hit but it’s going to all bounce back, and it’s going to bounce back very big at the right time,” Mr. Trump insisted on Thursday, sounding as if he was trying to persuade himself of that, as much as the millions of American voters who have watched their retirement savings melt and the coronavirus threaten their communities.