Trump is winning the political spin game

Washington: Donald Trump has somehow survived an overwhelming flood of political scandals, legal battles, accusations, the Russia investigation, impeachment, and now, it looks like he is finding a way to spin the coronavirus pandemic into something that will rally his base.

Currently, the US is facing an unprecedented public health crisis as the country with the highest number of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19. The death toll surpassed 100,000 this week and infections have reached nearly 1.8 million. The US is also confronting an economic crisis, with 15 percent unemployment. Economists predict this will rise to between 25 to 30 percent. It has not seen unemployment rates this high since the Great Depression.

The Trump administration’s handling of the global pandemic has been an unmitigated disaster – he brushed off the seriousness of the virus, moved too slowly on mass testing and turned the virus response into a partisan game for his own political gain. Healthcare costs went up and economic bailouts helped corporations more than they helped American workers.

Trump’s grossly incompetent leadership was on full display, every day, during White House briefings about the virus, which he essentially turned into daily campaign rallies. He attacked reporters, in his usual bullying style, for asking questions about his slow response to the pandemic. As criticism of the administration’s response grew and the death toll rose, Trump and his team did what they do best: changed the conversation.

This is how Trump has survived these battles. He turns legal battles into political ones and positions them in the court of media and public opinion, which is where he has transformed the art of political spin. His propaganda has normalised (or, rather, elevated) blatant lying, under the banner of “alternative facts”. Through Fox and Friends, and Trump pals like Sean Hannity, right-wing conspiracy theories have become commonplace in the media and American political discourse. After all, Fox News is still the most-watched cable news channel in America and has been for the past 18 years.

Just when you think Trump is confronting a crisis that he cannot escape, the White House creates a scandal for the media to focus their attention on. They overwhelm us with a story (often with an accompanying buzzword) that creates a host of accusations and legal questions that confuse and overwhelm the public as we scramble to try to understand the basic elements of the controversy.

Cue, Trump’s now infamous Mother’s Day tweeting rampage. The #OBAMAGATE! tweet was followed by accusations of wrongdoing by dozens of individuals from the Obama administration, the FBI, the Justice Department and others. Trump demanded that Obama be subpoenaed to testify to the Senate over “Obamagate,” a demand which Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell and South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsay Graham both rejected. This says a lot about how ridiculous this story is given that McConnell and Graham are two of Trump’s staunchest defenders. 

Furthermore, when a Washington Post reporter asked Trump to explain the specific crimes behind “Obamagate,” he retorted in his classic style: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody … All you have to do is read the newspapers, except yours.”

This is Trump doing what Trump does best. He is spinning a story that he hopes will undermine the entire Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the election. He thinks that if they exonerate the likes of Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, it will completely exonerate the Trump team and shift attention towards Obama (and Obama’s vice president and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden).

This is also likely a pre-emptive attack to help the Trump administration battle accusations of pro-Trump Russian interference in the upcoming 2020 election. Intelligence officials briefed members of Congress on the matter in February, arguing that Russia was already actively working to help re-elect Trump. Biden rightly pointed out in an interview with ABC that: “This is all about diversion. This is a game this guy plays all the time.” The question is, will it work?

Given Trump’s track record, it could. Trump has the bully pulpit and he is using it. Plus, the media is falling for it. His wild accusations and conspiracy theories increase ratings and clickbait. Perhaps less cynically, it is also the job of reporters to follow and investigate claims that the president makes. I am guilty of this myself. In the last couple of weeks, I have spent hours trying to understand all the individuals and accusations surrounding the alleged “Obamagate”.

Trump is attempting to squirm his way out of a serious conversation about his failed leadership, yet again. Even the impeachment did not seem to make much of a difference and opinions about the charges (abuse of power and obstruction of Congress) fell along partisan lines. And that seems like it was a lifetime ago, given the onslaught of news and scandals coming from the White House (and Trump’s tweets) every day.

Somehow, Trump’s approval ratings are holding relatively steady. They even got a bump. As of May 13, according to a Gallup poll, his job approval rating reached 49 percent, a tie for the highest of his presidency. This is low, but not that much lower than previous presidents. Obama began his second term in 2012 with a job approval rating of 46 percent. Furthermore, even amid the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, a recent CNN poll shows that respondents gave Trump a strong advantage over Biden in terms of his handling of the economy.

Trump’s strategy of blaming the Chinese for the coronavirus also seems to be working with the American public. A recent survey by Navigator Research showed that 43 percent of Americans think “China bears more responsibility than the federal government for the way coronavirus has spread in the US”.

Polling data about the 2020 election varies. FiveThirtyEight gives Biden around a six-point lead nationally, and crucial but narrow leads in the key battleground states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin and North Carolina. However, a recent CNN poll conducted by SSRS echoes Biden’s national lead but shows an advantage for Trump in the swing states. This would allow him to win the Electoral College and likely lose the popular vote, which is exactly what happened in 2016.

But there are many wild cards going into the 2020 election, including the impact of social distancing measures and mail-in ballots on voter turnout, among other questions about whether the economy will bounce back, and whether campaign rallies and conventions will be held. With less than six months until election day, it is impossible to predict.

One thing is for sure. The Biden campaign needs to suit up and make the shift from a primary to a general election campaign as soon as possible. They showed a promising start with a clear message of unity when Biden and Bernie Sanders, together, announced a set of task forces to develop policy, which included progressive politicians, among them New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as members. This shows a substantive effort on the part of the Biden campaign to work with the progressive left to establish strong policy platforms on the economy, climate change, healthcare and other vital issues.

I want to believe that this campaign will be decided by the substance of policy platforms and the virtues of truth. I want it to be a real test of competent leadership and ideas, and I want to see a real debate about how to tackle the problems facing our country. But I am gravely concerned it will be yet another election contested on disinformation, propaganda and fear.