In the end, Donald Trump’s most formidable foe in this campaign wasn’t Joe Biden and the Democratic Party. It wasn’t Never Trumpers or the Deep State or The Lincoln Project. It wasn’t suburban women or voters of color or a hostile press.
It was Donald Trump.
Only twice in the last 85 years has an elected chief executive been defeated for reelection — George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Jimmy Carter in 1980 — and both times the incumbent was weakened by a significant third-party candidate (Ross Perot in Bush’s case and John Anderson in Carter’s). Trump had no such burden. He had only to contend with a 77-year-old career politician who had run for president twice before and washed out both times. Against any other incumbent, such a challenger would have posed little threat.
The power of incumbency is enormous in presidential politics. Trump’s four years in office have been polarizing and chaotic, and a great swath of the electorate has always detested him. But when it came time for reelection, the sitting president ought to have had the wind at his back. If, for just the last month or two, he had managed to act more like a president and less like a shock jock, he would have entered Election Day as the favorite rather than teetering on the edge of membership in the club of one-term presidents.
The 2020 presidential campaign began years ago, but as is often the case, the race was decided in the last few weeks. Of course the majority of Americans made up their minds about Trump long ago. But in the end, the election came down to the narrow slice of voters who were undecided until very late in the campaign. Of the more than 90 million Americans who cast early ballots, as reported by the polling survey firm Morning Consult, 1 in 5 settled on their choice for president within the last month before voting. Those were the voters Trump should have been moving heaven and earth to woo. All he had to do was control himself for few weeks — to show those late-deciding voters a Trump who wasn’t reckless, disruptive, and bellicose.
“It would be so easy for him to win my vote,” said Ohio voter Amanda Jaronowski in an Associated Press story two weeks ago, “if he could just be a decent human being.”
He wouldn’t make the effort.
Even with his presidency on the line, Trump couldn’t bring himself to curb the obnoxious and juvenile antics that draw laughs and applause at his rallies but repel countless voters who support his policies but find his behavior unbearable. Instead he spent the last weeks of the campaign generating even more of his trademark insults and invective: Mocking Democratic Representative Adam Schiff of California as a “watermelon-head” who “should be locked up.” Fantasizing aloud about beating up Biden. Suggesting to a cheering crowd that he’d like to fire Dr. Anthony Fauci. Demanding to know why Attorney General Bill Barr hasn’t arrested Biden, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton for their “treasonous plot” against him. Jeering even at a supporter for donning a face mask. Declaring that “doctors get more money” when a patient dies of COVID-19.
Trump is capable of self-discipline — he proved it during his second debate with Biden, on Oct. 22, when he was far more restrained than he had been in their first encounter. But that was the exception that proved the rule. It was the only time he was willing to dial back his worst impulses. In the final weeks of his campaign, Trump was otherwise as unfiltered, abrasive, and nasty as ever. At just the moment when tens of millions of previously undecided or unengaged voters were finally focusing on the presidential race — just when it would have been in Trump’s political interest to display a modicum of gravitas and dignity, just when he had every reason to put his narcissism and self-indulgence temporarily on ice — the president refused to change a thing.
“At some point I’m gonna be so presidential that you people will be so bored,” Trump told voters in 2016. But that point never came. Not even at the last minute, when four more years in the White House were on the line.