By Leon Rubis
March 25, 2020
Donald Trump stunned the world in 2016 with an electoral victory that surprised everyone – even him. This year, I think there’s a good chance Trump will shock us again – by ending his reelection campaign and turning over the race to Vice President Mike Pence. While this would seem uncharacteristic for such a narcissistic egomaniac, circumstances may dictate that ending his reelection campaign becomes his ultimate feat of self-aggrandizement. Here’s how it plays out:
Every day brings disheartening news and dire projections of the toll the coronavirus is taking on public health and the economy. Trump has been able to bungle or ignore many other domestic and international policy issues that his supporters dismiss either with uninterest or as concerns only of liberals. But this crisis will hit his followers in personal ways that really hurt. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, may be sickened and thousands will die. Everyone, ill or not, will feel far-reaching effects. A deepening and widening recession will destroy millions of his voters’ low-paid service, retail, restaurant, travel and entertainment/recreational jobs, not to mention higher-paid manufacturing, construction and other blue-collar jobs. The widespread misery and social isolation will stretch deep into the summer, upending people’s lives and the economy and overwhelming health care resources in red and blue states alike.
In such an extended national crisis, Trump will become increasingly unhappy with being president (or, more accurately, continuing to play-pretend being a president). The coronavirus epidemic is the first, really complex, multidimensional crisis Trump has been forced to pay sustained attention to. Day after day, week after week, he has to listen to nuanced debate and expert advice for which he has no patience, and announce and defend (or, in practice, garble) developments and policies about which he has little comprehension. Unlike the other issues he has bluffed and blustered his way through –- and countless “nonissues” that he gins up to play to his base – this crisis forces him to deal with facts, experts and reality in unpleasant ways he’s viscerally allergic to. It forces the effects of administrative policies, decisions and actions into the daily public spotlight and individual lives in real time. COVID-19 will remind Trump that he never really wanted to be president, anyway.
Why campaign to do something for another four years that you don’t enjoy doing? With social distancing guidelines continuing indefinitely, and likely to get even more stringent and widespread, Trump can’t preen for and feed off of his rousing, red-meat campaign rallies. Campaigning just isn’t any fun without, well, campaigning.
Reinforcing his inherent unsuitability for the nation’s top leadership job, the prospect of losing GOP control of the Senate presents Trump with dismal prospects for a second term. Does he really want to spend four years fending off a Democratic-majority Congress, potentially including another impeachment? His ability to appoint federal judges – one of his primary selling points to evangelicals and other conservatives – will be neutralized. And while he’s successfully resisted calls to release his tax returns, that might not be possible for another four years. He hasn’t released them because they undoubtedly contain damning information. Why not sidestep that battle and prevent another stain on his legacy?
With Joe Biden as his opponent, Trump’s chances of losing the election have become probable, assuming even a moderately effective Democratic campaign. Trump’s ego simply can’t and won’t accept a reelection defeat. He is too fragile and immature to risk a resounding rejection that will be a major chapter in future history books.
But Trump has an alternative that allows him to leave on his own terms. Making a surprise announcement that he won’t run for reelection requires only a plausible cover story, a face-saving spin. And that’s a no-brainer – declare that the magnitude of the public health crisis and economic recession demand his full attention rather than campaigning for reelection.
Trump’s family could push him in this direction. Although his sons, daughter and son-in-law have profitably grifted on their unexpected status, they would surely find it appealing to return to running their businesses without those pesky government ethics rules and the constant glare of media scrutiny. And the recession is an existential threat to the Trump business empire along with the rest of the hotel, recreation and real estate industry. Trump probably has little confidence in his sons to steer the family holdings through a deep, worldwide recession. As with everything else in the prism of his self-image, only he can save it!
Trump will easily realize that ending his reelection bid with a self-sacrificing narrative would make him seem positively “presidential” for the first time in his tenure. It would be applauded by his supporters and welcomed by his opponents. It would end his one term on a high note – the only one that would still be possible. His GOP enablers and acolytes will hail him as the greatest president ever! And Pence will the absorb the electoral defeat that is rightfully Trump’s, allowing Trump to claim forever that if only he had been able to stay in the race, he would have won!
While such a noble action might seem unlikely for such a self-centered narcissist as Trump, it has the all-important feature of being what’s best for Donald Trump in the face of a near-certain election defeat. And what’s best for Trump, as he has demonstrated repeatedly, is all he cares about.
Leon Rubis is a retired, Washington, D.C.-based journalist and editor for trade, association and consumer media.