Has the Trump magic worn off — in SWFL and everywhere else?

05-10-20 Trump as wizard
The wizarding world of Donald Trump.             (Photo illustration: New York Magazine)

May 11, 2020 by David Silverberg.

Has Donald Trump’s magic finally worn off?

We’re not talking about his delusional magic that the coronavirus would simply disappear: “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” Nor are we talking about the magic of beating impeachment: “the real defense, the real legal strategy, was a belief in Trump’s magical properties,” as Michael Wolff put it in his book Siege.

No, we’re talking about real magic, in the real world, with real results: The magical ability to get politicians elected.

Say what you will about the man, he has been able to pick and place his candidates in key Republican primary elections.

Nowhere has this magic worked more than in Florida, where Trump’s magic elected the governor in 2018.

In late 2017 Ron DeSantis was a two-term congressman who was losing a Republican primary race for governor to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Putnam looked like a lock, with strong fundraising and a long lead in the polls. But then Trump reached down, breaking party norms of not picking a favorite in a primary race, and chose to endorse DeSantis. Why? Perhaps it was DeSantis’ toddler appearing in a TV commercial building a border wall with toy blocks. Or maybe it was DeSantis’ slavish and extravagant Trumpism. Or, most likely, it was DeSantis’ charges that Putnum was insufficiently Trumpy.

Whatever it was, it worked. DeSantis went on to defeat Putnam in the primary and squeak into the governor’s seat.

Trump has intervened in other intra-party contests too: in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Indiana—even reaching way down the chain of command to oust the Ohio Republican Party chairman for opposing him.

Trump’s candidates won. His interventions and the blind loyalty of his most faithful followers made him the complete ruler of the Party.

Republican politicians know this. They’ve seen the magic. If they’re in a primary race, Trump can call it with a tweet.

But COVID-19 has been as resistant to Trump’s magic as it has been to hydroxychloroquine.

A historic precedent

There’s an example of a natural disaster bringing down a president who had ridden out other crises.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina barreled across Florida, the Gulf and slammed into the Mississippi coast, Louisiana and—most tellingly—New Orleans.

The city was devastated. The response was chaotic, ineffective and a disaster in itself. Federal agencies, the state government and the city’s leadership failed completely. Americans saw desperate, struggling people, abandoned without food or water and a hapless administration that couldn’t help them.

They also saw a president looking down from Air Force One, seemingly oblivious and above it all, apparently uncaring and ineffective.

For President George W. Bush, despite the many efforts he really did make in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the political tide turned against him.

“In a national catastrophe, the easiest person to blame is the president,” Bush later reflected in his book, Decision Points. “Katrina presented a political opportunity that some critics exploited for years. The aftermath of Katrina—combined with the collapse of Social Security reform and the drumbeat of violence in Iraq—made the fall of 2005 a damaging period in my presidency. Just a year earlier I had won reelection with more votes than any candidate in history. By the end of 2005, my political capital was gone. With my approval ratings plummeting, many Democrats—and some Republicans—concluded they would be better off opposing me than working together.”

That is the key. Politicians have to make a calculation: Is it more personally advantageous to work with the party’s leader, or against him?

By any objective measure, Donald Trump’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic has been truly disastrous. From ignoring and dismissing it when he could have prepared for it, to minimizing it as its toll mounted, to defying science and suggesting that ingesting bleach might defeat it, his actions are on a par with the Emperor Nero, not to mention George W. Bush. And he has presided over the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression and an appalling and dizzying rise in unemployment.

Trump’s strategy for dealing with this has been to blame anyone and everyone else for the nation’s troubles: China for the virus, Democrats for the economy, governors for quarantines, Barack Obama for being alive and the media for reporting it all. The Republican Party has given up on trying to defend Trump’s actions, instead advising its candidates to blame China for everything.

It would take a powerful spell to get Americans to overlook their misery, fear and confusion and buy the Trump line. But Trump is betting that with enough money, relentless advertising and casting lots of blame it might just work and get him re-elected.

But will it continue to get his candidates elected?

Enchanted Southwest Florida

Southwest Florida’s 19th Congressional District has 10 Republican candidates jostling to be the area’s next representative in Congress (as has been well documented by The Paradise Progressive).

All are Trumpers desperately trying to show their true Trumpiness. One reason for this is that they are trying to appeal to the hard core Trumpers who will likely determine the outcome of the Republican primary on August 18.

But there is another factor: If Trump so decides, he could reach down and finish the primary race with a tweet endorsing a candidate, like he did for Ron DeSantis. That would certainly settle it for the Republican primary constituency and likely for the primary.

Right now it’s not clear that Trump has Southwest Florida on his mind or that he is inclined to intervene. He might decide to ignore all the traditional politicians and go with a dark horse—or not. He might ignore the rich amateurs and pick an unknown, leaving Casey Askar to light a cigar with his $3 million personal campaign loan or William Figlesthaler with a bunch of urinal screens and no place to put them.

If there’s any candidate who might seem likely to get a Trump endorsement it’s State Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral). He was the first candidate in the race, he has a legislative record, he’s an ardent Trumper, he’s a known quantity, he’s a Republican Party “contender” and he even has a photograph with himself and Trump to prove that he’s at least met the man.

12-12-19 Eagle and Trump
State Rep. Dane Eagle, an unidentified man and Donald Trump in an undated photo from the Dane Eagle congressional campaign.

But whether this counts for anything with Trump is unknown and at this point unknowable. Trump hasn’t endorsed him. The problem with worshiping a thin-skinned, impulsive and mercurial god is that he may strike without provocation or warning or turn his favor on a whim. Certainly with Trump past performance is absolutely no predictor of future behavior.

Still, it’s safe to say that the Trump magic will probably work if he chooses to use it in Southwest Florida—at least with Republicans.

Beyond them, though, maybe not so much.

Faltering magic and the race to watch

The fact is that the Trump magic may work in Republican primaries but once he gets into the real world, he’s not so magical.

Despite endorsing candidates in Alabama’s 2017 Senate race and Kentucky’s 2019 governor’s race, Trump’s candidates lost. Republicans lost both Virginia’s House and Senate last year. Trump lost again in Wisconsin on April 7 when a conservative judge he backed, Dan Kelly, was beaten by liberal Judge Jill Karofsky. And, of course, Trump’s biggest electoral defeat came in 2018 when he lost the House of Representatives to Democrats despite his determined efforts.

The Trump magic will be tested again tomorrow, Tuesday, May 12, when Californians in the 25th Congressional District north of Los Angeles vote in a special election.

The district went for Trump in 2016, then flipped in 2018 and is judged “even” by the Cook Political Report, the bible of congressional political junkies.

The previous representative, Democrat Katie Hill, resigned in a sex scandal. Running to replace her is Democrat Christy Smith and Republican Mike Garcia.

Trump decided to jump into this one with both feet, emphatically endorsing Garcia, and charging that the election is “rigged” because the state installed an in-person voting site when most of the voting was supposed to be by mail–which he has also denounced as “rigged.”

Of course, regardless of the outcome, Republicans and Democrats will do what they always do: the winners will generalize the victory (it shows broad trends and is a death knell for the opposition) and the losers will narrow the defeat (it was due to peculiar factors in the district and the candidate).

Still, it may be an indication whether the Trump magic still has its powers and whether a pandemic, an economic crash, a devastated labor force and sheer, demonstrated incompetence has taken the enchantment from this inept and overwhelmed sorcerer’s apprentice.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

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