Donald Trump had reason to count on the loyalty of the large chunk of Americans who drove his improbable election victory in 2016. But in 2020, he needed a wider swath of voters to believe in his promise to “Make America Great Again.”
Faced with three crises — mounting coronavirus infections and deaths, the ensuing economic collapse and protests against police killings of Black Americans — Trump as US president had an opportunity to unite people across political persuasions in the final year of his tumultuous first term.
Instead, at almost every pivotal moment, the brash businessman and former reality television star stayed true to his divisive brand. Spurning the advice of scientists and advisers, he stuck to a script embraced by his hard-core supporters and mocked those who dared to disagree.
His approach ultimately left a majority of American voters convinced he was not the right man to lead the country forward.
“If he had buckled down with a coherent and reassuring strategy dealing with the coronavirus, he absolutely could have made up the small margins that he lost several states by,” said Republican strategist Ryan Williams, who advised Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
“Instead of addressing the pandemic by listening to the advice of his best advisers, he doubled down on his instincts, which is what Donald Trump has done his entire life,” Williams said.
Even after major networks had declared Democrat Joe Biden the winner on Saturday, Trump refused to concede. Among Republicans, there was a feeling Trump did better than expected. Pre-election opinion polls had signalled a Democratic tidal wave. But Trump kept it close, helped Republicans down the ballot and attracted more than 70 million votes, seven million more than he did in 2016.
“Trump delivered,” Republican strategist Scott Reed said. “And he’s still going to have a major impact on the party.”
Trump began the year riding high and looking poised to coast to re-election. The economy was booming. His impeachment trial was behind him after the Republican-led Senate cleared him on two charges brought by Democrats. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, was fractured in its search for a presidential nominee.
On Air Force One in February, Trump chuckled and critiqued the performances of each potential rival as he watched them debate on the TV in his front cabin. But by April, COVID-19 had spread throughout the country. Seeing that daily news briefings by his coronavirus task force were getting good TV ratings, Trump stepped in and took them over, reluctant to cede the limelight.