Donald Trump’s Tweet Thursday morning “just asking” about delaying the presidential election might be a shark bump ahead of him devouring democracy, but it seems much more likely it is the pathetic last gasp of a desperate, losing politician: The moment where Trump publicly came to grips with the fact that his reelection campaign is swirling down the golden toilet.
There’s no cavalry coming this time. No V-shaped recovery, vaccine, “hidden voters,” or any other deus ex machina that might miraculously allow him to make up the precious time and opportunity he has squandered for the last three-plus years. Changing campaign managers isn’t going to shake things up, and there won’t be a convention “bounce” to help, either. It just might all be over but the shouting. In his toothless threat this morning, Trump is admitting that the news isn’t fake and the polls aren’t bogus. That he’s going down in flames. Bigly. And this is also Trump trying to prearrange a scapegoat—in this case, mail-in ballots—for when he is assigned to history as a very bad one-term president.
If this is Trump conceding to the apparently inevitable, it’s also a dangerous time. People who are forced to finally admit imminent defeat are prone to outbursts and desperate behavior. When those people are the president, and especially this president, things can get dicey.
It’s no coincidence that Trump’s tweet came on the same morning that the U.S. economy reported by far the worst quarter in American history, with a 32.9 percent contraction in GDP. That’s back-breaking news for a president whose case for re-election always hinged on a good economy.
Now that economy is gone, and it won’t be coming back soon enough to save him—especially with some states allowing people to vote in September. Look at the polls, or think of some of the most effective campaign lines—”It’s the economy stupid!” or ”Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”—and it’s plain that he’s on the wrong side of every closing argument.
It goes without saying that Trump cannot unilaterally change the election day. Thank God, that would take an act of Congress. We can be thankful that our system, imperfect as it may be, has built-in guardrails to help stop precisely this kind of power grab.
None of this should take Trump off the hook for his authoritarian fantasies, or make you feel sorry for him. If the choice is between Trump’s political ambitions and the preservation of this great experiment, there isn’t much of a contest. That’s why Trump thinks it’s safe to send kids back to school amid a pandemic (that helps his re-election chances) but not safe enough to have an election on November 3 (that hurts his re-election chances).
Coincidentally, Trump’s tweet also happened to come an hour before the news that Herman Cain, who’d been hospitalized with COVID-19 shortly after attending Trump’s disastrous Tulsa rally, had passed away.
By the way, Trump’s tweet was predicted by none other than Joe Biden, who said, “Mark my words, I think he is going to try to kick back the election somehow.” At the time, some on the right called it a conspiracy theory and chided Biden for going there, proving the point that suggesting Trump will never stoop to a given level is always a thankless task; he will always make you regret it. His ability to go low is boundless. And it’s worth remembering that even if Trump is admitting to the evidently inevitable here, he’s still going to go down swinging.
Trump’s tweet is an open invitation to wavering Republicans to finally jump ship. In recent days, I have noticed commentators like Rich Lowry and Erick Erickson (both originally Trump critics who sidled up to him after the election) create some distance and start to hedge their bets.
Additionally, elected Republicans like Ted Cruz and Ben Sasse have suddenly rediscovered that spending and debt are bad. These maneuvers are, no doubt, aided by the fact that Trump looks destined to lose. Cruz and Marco Rubio on Thursday both immediately poured cold water on Trump’s tweet, as did Mitch McConnell. (Trump responded to that feedback by pinning his Tweet, and if Republicans are really serious here, this would also be the time to try and replace Trump on the ticket with someone who might, at the very least, save the U.S. Senate.)
For the rest of us, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Trump said something truly shocking on Thursday. But it’s mostly shocking because it signals that even he can’t deny that the jig is finally up. It’s now just a matter of time.