Will this be the year that Jeb Bush gets his revenge? In 2016, the former Florida governor and Bush dynasty heir apparent famously dubbed Donald Trump the “chaos candidate.” The moniker had its merits, but this desperate swing packed less of a punch than “Low Energy” Jeb. Trump voters were hoping to inject some disruption, maybe even a little chaos, into the political system and safe establishment alternatives like Bush badly misread the moment.
Bush’s warning to the Republican primary electorate seems more prescient now. More than riots, the pandemic, or the economy, President Trump’s volatility poses the main threat to his reelection. At a time of crisis, the American people look for a steady hand to provide calm, reassuring leadership. Trump is constitutionally incapable of providing it, as he is far better equipped to rally his supporters and assail his foes. But that may not be what the public wants right now and it is the main thing a more conventional candidate, even the well past his prime Joe Biden can at least claim to offer.
Trump isn’t done yet. The coronavirus crisis appears to be stabilizing and perhaps a second wave can be mitigated or avoided entirely before the election. The economy could improve, at least to the point where voters feel it is moving in the right direction, and recovery may already be on the way. Whatever the long-term political implications of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody, the biggest demonstrations and certainly the worst riots are likely to be over by the time Americans head to the polls.
Given that all these problems currently still exist, however, it is no surprise that Trump lags behind Biden in the polls. Even an otherwise dismal NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken during the recession finds Trump with double-digit leads over Biden on “cutting the unemployment rate” and “dealing with the economy,” with 48 percent preferring the incumbent president to handle these issues.
A plurality of Americans appears to understand that the contraction is largely due to steps taken to arrest the spread of the coronavirus. The Democrats are criticizing Trump for not locking down the economy earlier and pushing to keep it locked down longer.
But if months of the coronavirus and civil unrest have conditioned a majority to decide the country needs more stable leadership than the “very stable genius” they see on Twitter provides, there is no recovery that can save Trump. He is who he is, and scarcely anyone thinks he can change now.
When Trump talks tough (see “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”) he is seen as dark and divisive in times that require unity. When Trump tries to project positivity, he is seen as Pollyannaish and out of touch. Consider his Rose Garden comments about the opportunity for racial equality created by the Floyd protests, which were largely misreported as him saying a dead black man was happy about the newly released jobs numbers.