The single most astonishing “revelation” of Bob Woodward’s published “Rage” against Donald Trump is that nobody much cared.
After three-and-a-half years as President, most Americans aren’t at all surprised to learn that Trump: lies; bullies; is a narcissist; cares, above all else, about the welfare of himself and his family; refuses to listen to anyone else; is often infernally stupid, as exemplified by choosing to talk to a duplicitous snake-like Woodward in the first place. (Despite his after-the-fact protestations, Woodward’s calculated decision to withhold, until book publication, Trump’s true beliefs about the dangers of COVID are all you need to know about the author’s own “moral compass.”)
So, while journalists breathlessly hailed the latest Woodward hatchet job as a “bombshell,” most Americans received it as just another ho-hum example of “Trump being Trump.”
The fact is that a bit more than half of all Americans despise Trump and a bit less than half accept him; no matter what Bob Woodward or anyone else tells them. Any attempt to change the minds of these polarized opposites is futile.
Which brings us to the November election and the incumbent’s uphill, last-ditch climb to erase the sticky seven-point poll lead that Joe Biden has hung onto for months. Trump’s only chance to win is convincing swing voters in five states—Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida—that his unique brand of administrative lunacy deserves another four years.
With a little more than a month to go, it’s unlikely that Trump can pull it off. But it’s not impossible.
For one thing, Trump’s opponent is a pitifully weak candidate, whose advisers—like Trump’s —get apoplectic every time he ventures off-script.
Biden, at 77, has lost more than a step. His factual recall is limited. He tends to speak in vague generalities and gets confused with specifics. And his obvious antipathy to his opponent is so severe—and so sincere—that the frequently flappable Biden may “flap” even more—to his detriment—if goaded by Trump.
So, even though Trump himself isn’t terribly articulate or knowledgeable and is also prone to fly off the handle at the slightest slight, his best chance to run roughshod over his feeble challenger may lie in the three scheduled debates over the next three weeks.
Biden will be particularly challenged in the first debate, moderated by Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who will pepper the former Vice President on all matter of embarrassing questions: from his alleged use of a teleprompter during interviews to his son’s unchallenged windfall for a do-nothing job in Ukraine. Trump, on the other hand, just conducted a White House interview with Wallace, so he’s more experienced in handling the Fox reporter’s take-no-prisoners persistence.
Trump’s greatest debate challenge will be the last of the three, moderated by Kristen Welker of NBC, who has proudly carried her network’s anti-Trump banner as White House correspondent for the past several years. Trump will likely use the debate forum to spar with Welker and challenge her motives, as he has done regularly at White House COVID briefings.
And this technique—of challenging a hostile media—may provide an additional route to help the incumbent eke out another improbable victory.
First, the nation’s trust in the media has steadily eroded during the Trump presidency. According to the 2020 Knight Foundation-Gallup survey, a whopping 86 percent of Americans detect either “a great deal” or a “fair amount” of political bias in news coverage.
Second, as the presidential campaign has worn on, an increasing number of once-respected media outlets—particularly CNN and The New York Times—have surrendered any pretense of “objectivity” as far as Trump is concerned.
The Times’ rotating cadre of daily anti-Trump beat reporters regularly quotes anonymous “presidential advisers” who bemoan their candidate’s dimming prospects. Meanwhile, Biden is hailed for delivering “high energy performances” defined by “withering criticism of Mr. Trump and palpable enthusiasm for connecting with voters.”
Meanwhile, CNN convenes daily panels of its homegrown stable of dour Trump haters—Jim Acosta, Gloria Borger, Jake Tapper, et al—to pick over, ad nauseum, the President’s personal problems and lack of qualifications to remain in office.
So, third, if the Knight-Gallup findings are to be believed, and 80 percent of Americans perceive inaccurate news to be “intentional,” then it’s entirely likely that swing voters in these crucial swing states may resent that outlets like the Times and CNN so blatantly bias their coverage to defeat Trump. And it’s certainly possible, therefore, that these key voters will express their displeasure by casting their ballots for Trump.
Again, with the clock winding down, the smart money is still on Biden to end America’s most chaotic Presidency; especially with the potential prospect of a fall coronavirus resurgence and an incumbent so eminently capable of saying or tweeting something stupid in the final days to ensure disaster.
Nonetheless, because Biden is so fundamentally weak, the election promises to be close. And if Trump can trip up the challenger in the debates, and if swing state fence-sitters find an increasingly-biased media intolerable—admittedly, two big “ifs”—then don’t count out another Donald Trump election surprise in November.
Fraser P. Seitel has been a communications consultant, author and teacher for 40 years. He is author of the Pearson text “The Practice of Public Relations,” now in its 14th edition, and co-author of “Rethinking Reputation" and "Idea Wise.” He may be reached directly at [email protected].