The 2020 general election is in 18 days, with early and absentee voting underway in most states. More than 215,000 Americans are dead from a virus that is still spreading unchecked within the United States, 25 million Americans are collecting unemployment benefits, and with no economic stimulus deal in sight and another wave of Covid-19 infections looming, even more of their countrymen and women are at risk of joining the ranks of the dead or unemployed.
But as far as 45th President of the United States, those running his re-election campaign, and the nebulous circles of influence surrounding them are concerned, it might as well be 2016.
With just over two weeks to go before Americans render their final verdict on his presidency, Donald Trump’s campaign has taken on an aura that is equal parts reality show rerun and a heaping chicken soup for his unceasingly aggrieved soul.
Trump has resumed the campaign rallies that have defined his political career, flouting the guidelines and regulations promulgated by both his own White House Coronavirus Task Force and the health departments in the states that have hosted them. His campaign is largely run by the same loyalists who’ve surrounded him since he announced his first bid for the presidency in 2015 (minus those who’ve been indicted and/or convicted of federal crimes), and shady sources on the fringes of his political orbit are using stolen (and possibly forged) emails to promote outlandish claims about his opponent and his opponent’s family.
And just as he punctuated rally after rally in the closing weeks of the 2016 race with emails Russia’s military intelligence service stole from the Democratic National Committee and published through WikiLeaks, Trump is again making stolen documents of questionable origin a centerpiece of his stump speech.
Speaking before a packed-together, largely unmasked crowd at a Des Moines, Iowa airport on Wednesday, Trump used what US intelligence sources say could be the fruits of a Russian hack-and-leak campaign to slam his opponent with unfounded claims of corruption.
“We've just learned through explosive documents published by a very fine newspaper… that Joe Biden has been blatantly lying about his involvement in his son's corrupt business dealings,” said Trump, referencing emails revealed by the New York Post after they were purportedly stolen from a laptop hard drive belonging to Biden’s son Hunter. A Delaware computer repair shop owner is said to have copied and passed the emails to former New York City mayor and avowed Trumpist Rudy Giuliani.
The president repeated many of the same claims on Thursday morning in an interview with Fox Business Network. He then added other unverified accusations about Joe Biden’s brother Robert for good measure, even brushing off host Stuart Varney’s question of whether the 2020 reboot of “BUT HER EMAILS” was a set-up by telling him: “I don’t know what a set-up is.”
The Trump campaign proper and the fringes of Trumpworld have also continued their efforts to paint Biden as secretly suffering from some manner of degenerative illness, just as they did with Hillary Clinton over the course of the 2016 campaign. Campaign officials on Tuesday even offered up disgraced ex-White House doctor Ronny Jackson, now a Republican candidate for a Texas House seat, to opine on how Biden’s speech patterns (he is known to have had a stuttering problem since childhood) indicate cognitive decline, though he took pains to say he was not speaking as a physician and “no longer practices medicine.”
Meanwhile, both the institutional Republican Party and the outer fever swamps have adopted Trump’s baseless claims about Biden’s health. While the GOP’s official Twitter account has in recent days featured a video claiming that Biden “can’t remember if he’s been tested for cognitive decline,” a self-described Republican operative and Twitter influencer named Ali Akbar (also known as Ali Alexander) — who last year gained attention for claiming that Kamala Harris is not actually African-American because her father was a Jamaican immigrant — has been promoting a website claiming that Biden, just like the previous Democratic nominee, secretly suffers from Parkinson’s disease (neither Biden nor Hillary Clinton actually have Parkinson’s).
Asked about the Trump campaign’s push to recast the 2020 race as a rerun of 2016, a former Trump campaign official and longtime Trump confidante said the latest attempts to turn Biden into Hillary Clinton 2.0 are evidence that current campaign officials know they are losing and aren’t sure what else to do.
“They raised the money, but they didn't create the pathway to victory. They never figured out policy, he was never disciplined enough, so here we are, 20 days until the election… and they’ve realized that nothing they’ve done has worked, so they’re going back to what they originally did, which was to create chaos and create distractions,” said the official, who asked for anonymity due to Trump’s propensity for litigation.
But the ex-Trumpworld insider also opined that this year’s attempt to turn Hunter Biden into a Hillaryesque bête noire is likely to backfire, citing Trump’s cringe-inducing invocation of his name during the first debate between him and the former VP.
“Donald has always done well with a boogeyman, and so the boogeyman they’ve created this time is Hunter Biden, but their obsession with him is so bizarre. And they’ve pushed it all the way to the other end of the pendulum, which is empathy — making people feel bad for him,” they said.
Trumpworld’s push to make Hunter Biden the centerpiece of his campaign is just the latest attempt to turn the former Vice President’s sole surviving son into an albatross around his neck. Such efforts, which have been a singular focus of Giuliani’s since the conclusion of Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russia, have persisted even after they led directly to Trump becoming just the third US president to face an impeachment trial before the Senate.
But Zac Petkanas, who ran rapid response for Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said such an endeavor against Biden is a fool’s errand because it lacks the foundation that the GOP built up against Clinton over a period of decades.
“In 2016, the strategy that Donald Trump and his campaign were following was to simply dredge up decades’ worth of feelings from the American people about the Clintons that have been carefully laid down by outside groups to destroy the family,” he explained. “Now they're trying to do the same thing to Joe Biden and they're running into serious problems because there has not been a decades-long campaign to trash Joe Biden and undermine the public’s perception of honesty and trustworthiness.”
Petkanas noted that the years-long sturm und drang over Clinton’s private email server was more reflective of the public’s longstanding skepticism of her than an actual concern for whether she properly handled classified information.
Lincoln Project founder Rick Wilson, a veteran of decades of Republican campaigns, largely agreed with Petkanas’ assessment. In a phone interview, he acknowledged that his former party’s “stock in trade” for three decades was “to turn Hillary Clinton into a demonic figure in the minds of Republican voters so they were primed to believe anything they heard about her, no matter how horrifying,” but stressed that such an effort against Biden is doomed to fail.
“Even with the hardest-core Republican partisans… the ground state of Joe Biden with most voters is affable, friendly Joe Biden, not a hyper-progressive nanny scold,” he said.
On the matter of Trumpworld’s desire to render Biden as no more than a drooling invalid in the eyes of the American people, Wilson said the efforts by people such as Alexander and others in that outer orbit are little more than sad attempts to maintain relevance by people who would never be allowed near a normal presidential campaign.
“These are not really bright guys… They think of themselves as digital influencers with an outsized amount of power, but even 2016 they were a marginal sub-factor in this,” he said, adding that their contributions will be for naught in the eyes of most voters because Trump has destroyed any argument about either candidate’s health by his cavalier attitude towards the Covid-19 pandemic and his myriad lies about his own health.
“Donald Trump, having been infected with Covid out of his own stupidity, has essentially been telling the American people he's so very fit for years when the evidence is quite obviously the opposite,” he explained. “He's a doddering obese guy who has lived a hard life of fried chicken and filet-o-fish. This is not a man at the peak of his physical condition, so the attacks on Joe Biden’s health when Joe Biden can clearly do more push-ups than Donald Trump is not even going to be close to effective.”
Wilson added that Trump’s team is hampered this time around by the fact that his campaign is staffed by bottom-of-the-barrel amateurs, essentially broke, and — as a consequence of former campaign manager Brad Parscale’s financial mismanagement — can’t afford to spend the money needed to amplify any of their rebooted 2016-style messaging beyond the closed pro-Trump media ecosystem.
But even if they had the money to do so, it’s unclear whether voters who have spent most of this year suffering from the disruptions caused by Trump’s failure to take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously would even care enough about Hunter Biden’s business dealings or Joe Biden’s health to consider not voting for the ex-Veep.
Sarah Longwell, a GOP strategist and the founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, has been conducting focus groups with GOP-leaning women who voted for Trump in 2016.
In a phone interview, Longwell noted that Trump’s 2016 campaign, while largely grievance-oriented, also featured promises to help the people he described as “the forgotten men and women of America”.
But Longwell said her focus group participants aren’t seeing any message for them this year.
“In 2016, there was a lot of the grievance politics and everything else, but he was also talking about things that, at the time, were more front-of-mind to people,” she explained. “There were a lot of people who wanted something done about immigration, who lived in depressed areas of the country and wanted their economic drivers back — like manufacturing, steel, or coal — and he went around promising everybody that he would do that, and they took a chance on him. But now what everybody cares about is: Can we get this pandemic under control, so that our kids can go back to school, and we can go back to work, and the economy is working again? But that's not what he talks about [this year] — he just doesn't talk about the things that people care about.”
And while Trump continues to point to the crowds at his rallies as evidence of enthusiasm that will power him to another surprise victory, Longwell said focusing on his hardcore base means ignoring all the voters who might have attended a 2016 rally and voted for him that year but won’t consider it this time because of his incompetence.
“Those people [at rallies] are always going to stick with him, but there are a whole bunch of voters who took a chance on him last time because they really didn't like Hillary Clinton and thought he might improve their lives. But their lives have not improved, and they are frustrated and exhausted,” she said, adding that Trump’s attempts to gin up a scandal around Hunter Biden won’t resonate for the same reason voters didn’t care about the Mueller investigation in the end. “They didn’t care about Russia because it didn’t touch their lives. Personal consequences are everything, and the personal consequences for these people from Donald Trump’s leadership have been negative.”
Watch: Can you catch Covid twice?