Today as I write, it’s March 15, the Ides of March, and we will one day learn that some seer inside the White House — Stephen Miller perhaps, after reading the entrails of a chicken — warned the president to beware of the day, as Spurinna did Caesar in early March of 44 B.C.
Not to equate Donald Trump with Julius Caesar, although Trump would like the thought, but the first two weeks of March have the feeling of a dramatic turning point similar to that fateful day for the Roman Empire 2,064 years ago.
Certainly it is for Trump, who in the matter of 10 days saw his two receding hopes for retaining the presidency effectively vanish. His and Russia’s vain hopes of running against the avowed socialist Bernie Sanders slipped away after the South Carolina primary and Joe Biden’s sweep of 15 of the next 19 primaries. Then the coronavirus pandemic, the economic meltdown and Trump’s blundering reaction to it all undermined the one thing that had propped up his miserable poll numbers. He inherited the most resilient economy in history — more than seven years of uninterrupted growth — and in three years had not destroyed it. No matter what is responsible for it, a growing economy nearly always re-elects a president.
As they were for the Romans, these foreboding days may be equally dramatic for the country, which in three years has lost the famous American confidence — the knowledge that we were the leader of the free world, the best hope of mankind, the nation that held up the beacon of freedom and equality to the rest of the world, the nation that sacrificed to lift up the downtrodden and the oppressed, that controlled the global agenda on matters like trade, peace, health and climate change. Fairly suddenly, we were a nation repelled by old allies, laughed at by much of the world, scorned by people and nations that were reviled by the president — and not just by his “shithole countries.” And we hated and blamed each other.
It will take a while to see whether we recovered that old arrogant confidence or buried it.
A little tiresome background:
By the spring of 2019, the polls showed that, despite 44 years — a political lifetime — of controversial votes and verbal slips, the former vice president would beat Trump handily. Destroying Biden became the president’s obsession. Russia put out the word that the election interference that was the subject of the Mueller investigation was really the work of Ukrainian supporters of Hillary Clinton, not the Kremlin’s digital spies who were identified in all the Mueller indictments. Rudy Giuliani told Trump that Vice President Biden had tried to thwart Giuliani’s Russian allies in Ukraine with the help of his son Hunter (the same Hunter Biden who got a Batesville girl pregnant out of wedlock). So all that Americans heard — or at least lots of them — was that the Mueller investigation and all the impeachment fireworks by the Democrats were a ruse to cover up Joe Biden’s deceptions. The entire Republican Party, including Arkansas’s congressional roundup, joined the chorus. Joe Biden was the real villain in Ukraine, not the president who tried to bribe the country into announcing an investigation of the former president and keeping it going through the election.
It seemed for a long time to have worked. Biden slumped as Democrats assumed that the Trump strategy had made old Uncle Joe poison for too many voters. Biden barely registered in the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the usually silly New Hampshire primary. Trump ridiculed him and played up Bernie Sanders’ popularity and suggested that he might be hard to beat. Russian social media and broadcast outlets in places like Kansas City promoted Bernie. In the early debates, the media played up Biden’s criticism of busing to achieve racial balance in the schools in the 1970s, which would surely poison black voters against him.
Then 79-year-old Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, bear-hugged Biden on the eve of the South Carolina primary, and South Carolina Democrats handed him a walloping victory over Sanders and the rest of the field. Overnight, Democrats everywhere — even the handful in Arkansas — thought: “Why, he ain’t dead at all.” Age, flip-flops and all, Joe was the one whom Trump had proved that he could not beat. Everyone but Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard surrendered to Biden, and Sanders chose to make a gradual but graceful exit by nudging Biden to make his ancient liberal propensities more evident.
Trump’s shock and fear were palpable. His carefully bronzed visage became stern and tortured. Then the virus came to America.
Trump had a single thought — the same thought that had motivated everything he did and said as president and for all his preceding life: How can I turn this to my advantage or else keep it from hurting my chances for stardom, Forbes’ recognition as one of the richest Americans, or re-election? His self-absorption was transparent in every one of his tweets and staged reactions as the seriousness of the virus grew and absorbed more voters. It was hard for even his blindest supporters not to see. It was all about him. He alone among the world’s leaders had taken the right steps, although he fibbed about everything he was doing or had done. Each time he came back out to announce sterner steps, everything was political. He was stopping everyone from coming to the United States from Europe — although if they were coming from the United Kingdom they would still be welcome. Europeans could catch a train under the tunnel and continue on to America. The United Kingdom was a hotspot for the virus, but Trump had a golf resort there that he promoted, and he owed one to the prime minister, who was the only leader in Europe except for Hungary’s Victor Orban who showed any respect for him. All the others shun him, and he was showing them. Trump and Vladimir Putin had encouraged England to secede from the European Union and have been critical of the Atlantic alliance.
Trump blamed the terrible American response to the epidemic on his predecessor, the mixed-race man he had always maintained was an African who was neither fit nor eligible to be president of the United States. Never mind that it was Trump who had slashed health funding, tried to wipe out insurance protection for 20 million Americans and abolished the programs set up by Obama to prepare for the global epidemics that were sure to follow the H1N1 pandemic of 2009.
When the panic reached investors and the Dow — Trump’s measure of the American economy — sank, he demanded that the central bank and the other fiscal institutions of government do something to keep investors pumped up. At least through the election, he meant. After producing a big health bailout in the days before the big plunge, Democrats in the House of Representatives ginned up their own big program and he reluctantly accepted it.
On the eve of the Ides, he repeated that he had produced the greatest economy in American history, or the world. One little statistical comparison: When Barack Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. unemployment rate was 7.6 percent and rising fast, losing 2.5 million jobs a month. When Obama left office and handed it to Trump, the jobless rate was 4.6 percent and sinking. Under Trump in three years, with a global surge, it has gone from 4.6 percent to 3.5 percent. Wow!
From now until November, he will have to contend with facts — what he has actually done, from North Korea to the economy. You would like to think that the public — the electorate — would demand it. Time will tell whether that is the case, again, and whether we have regained our national swagger.