How can America's most divisive President survive November's election?

Teflon Don will go on and on: How could America’s most divisive President survive November’s election when he’s engulfed in riots, Covid meltdown and high unemployment? One Pulitzer-winning reporter says he’s flameproof… and set to win

  • America has the world’s worst tally of coronavirus deaths, at well over 100,000
  • Twelve cities have enforced curfews since protests over George Floyd’s death 
  • More than 11,000 people have been arrested since the demonstrations began
  • But David Kay Johnston thinks Donald Trump could win the November election 
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

After the anarchic and deeply troubling scenes of recent days, many will surely conclude that, in overwhelming numbers, the American people will kick Donald Trump out of the White House in November’s election.

What else could we do?

Our country is in flames, with peaceful protesters being tear-gassed and struck with police batons amid looting and lawlessness.

Twelve major cities have declared curfews, 17,000 troops have been activated, governors in at least 24 states called in the National Guard and more than 11,000 people have been arrested since the sickening footage first emerged of a white police officer pinning an unarmed black man, George Floyd, to the ground by kneeling on his neck, resulting in his death.

After the anarchic and deeply troubling scenes of recent days, many will conclude that the American people will kick Donald Trump out of the White House in November’s election

And if all that weren’t bad enough, we have the world’s worst tally of coronavirus deaths, at well over 100,000 – approaching double the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. 

Millions of people have lost their jobs already, and millions more are expected to join them in a recession – even a depression – following the pandemic.

Little wonder that many of Trump’s most ardent supporters are subdued on the subject of ‘four more years’.

But I have studied Trump for 32 years, having first met him in 1988 when I investigated his casino operations in Atlantic City and uncovered his friendships with the Mafia.

I know the man, his motivations and his modus operandi well. Let me tell you that it would be a huge mistake to assume he has lost the 2020 election.

In fact, there are many reasons to believe that what is happening now will deliver him that second term.

Critical as I have long been of him, I’ve always admired his ability to convince millions of people that he is a modern Midas, a ‘very stable genius’, to use his own phrase — and the only person who can save America.

That these claims are nonsense doesn’t matter as long as enough people believe them.

Despite his many flaws, Trump is remarkably resilient.

To retain the White House, he faces three challenges.

First, he must persuade Americans that China is responsible for the coronavirus deaths, and feckless state governors and local mayors — rather than his own chaotic administration — mishandled the pandemic. If fatalities, as expected, are falling after the summer, he will benefit. Should a reliable treatment have emerged by then, this will help further. Second, the social unrest needs to recede — as it will in the weeks to come.

Trump will claim it was his tough law-and-order policies that crushed the violence that erupted after Mr Floyd’s death and simultaneously reassure voters he is concerned about abusive policing.

His third challenge is the economy. This is the easiest one for him.

Even with more than a quarter of American workers on jobless benefits — and after a slightly uptick in employment numbers yesterday — Trump can argue the fastest way to revive the economy is to cut taxes further and jettison yet more business regulations.

Most of the big corporations don’t want the Democrats back in power, with the prospect of higher taxes and more red tape. They can help him now by announcing expansion plans and job-hire schemes, promising even more if he wins in November. 

More than 11,000 people have been arrested since the sickening footage emerged of a white police officer pinning George Floyd to the ground by kneeling on his neck, resulting in his death. Pictured, a protester raises his fist in front of a fire set in Manhattan protests on May 31

Meeting these challenges is achievable. And it is of a pattern with a man whose life has been characterised by turning setbacks that would destroy the careers and reputations of anyone else into triumphs.

Trump never admits error. His late mentor, the notorious political fixer and mafia consigliere Roy Cohn (who was disbarred as a lawyer for trying to defraud his own client), taught him to attack law enforcement and make them the bad guys. Whenever a judge rules against him, Trump calls the jurist a bigot, an idiot, corrupt or a ‘hater’.

The President understands that millions of white Americans never embraced the civil rights movement. Sadly, too many still wish they could put minorities ‘back in their place’.

They don’t want to sit next to an Asian on a plane, work alongside a Latino, and God forbid having to report to a black female boss!

Trump delights these fans by denouncing ‘political correctness’. He’s particularly brilliant in attacking this taboo, building support among those who demand the freedom to use racial, religious and gender slurs.

He also champions the peculiar American right that prevails in some states to walk around with military assault rifles slung over a shoulder and handguns holstered on the hip: a right that has been extensively displayed during recent protests against lockdowns and social distancing.

In this year’s election, Democrats expect heavily armed Trump supporters to mass near polling places where those who oppose the President will vote.

Their message will be clear — and some voters will be too intimidated to cast ballots.

Trump is also pushing hard to block postal voting in certain states, a process he uses personally but insists is rife with fraud.

His campaign is currently lobbying for postal voting in states where the process might benefit him, but against it in states he risks losing.

All this makes him a formidable candidate in 2020.

Then there is his core appeal. 

America has the world’s worst tally of coronavirus deaths, at well over 100,000 – approaching double the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. Pictured, healthcare workers removing a body from a refrigerator truck on April 8 in Brooklyn

His feral nature – his speech and bearing a world away from most politicians and statesmen – chimes with people who’d never dream of reading manifestos or the detailed plans of presidential candidates.

Rejecting the bureaucratese of Washington DC’s politicos, he endlessly repeats crude slogans. Where his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton – and his predecessor as President, Barack Obama – used sophisticated language, Trump gives his supporters chants: ‘Lock Her Up!’ ‘Build the Wall!’ and, of course: ‘Make America Great Again.’

When he cries, ‘I love the poorly educated,’ the same people applaud him, despite the slur.

He has long positioned himself as the champion of the Forgotten Man and that will not change in November. Denied his beloved rallies in sports stadiums because of coronavirus, he is now using Twitter and his combative press conferences to keep feeding lines to his ‘base’.

His appalling brilliance lies in the fact that no other candidate has so tapped into the disappointment, heartbreak and fury many poorer Americans feel from being endlessly squeezed, having watched their manufacturing jobs go to China and their pay-packets shrink as the billionaire class — of which he noisily claims to be a member — has only grown richer.

The ordinary voters do not scrutinise economic data. Yet they hear Trump brag incessantly that he has built the world’s greatest economy. Jobs, he insists, were becoming more plentiful on his watch until the virus struck, and wages had started rising in real terms.

He even made the preposterous and unsubstantiated claim that his over-promoted daughter Ivanka had created ’14 million jobs — and going up’.

That would be nearly a tenth of all jobs in America.

So even though many of his supporters might admit that, perhaps, they are no better off than they were four years ago, they can nonetheless believe that having a Democrat in the White House would be worse.

Demographics also favour him: at the last election, Hillary Clinton won among voters aged between 18 and 39, and Trump won among those over 40.

Those older Americans account for more than 70 per cent of the voting-age population and are more likely to cast ballots than younger people.

Twelve major cities have declared curfews, 17,000 troops have been activated and governors in at least 24 states called in the National Guard after demonstrations over the death of George Floyd. Pictured, a protester stands in front of a car set on fire in Texas on May 30

Thanks in large part to Trump, America is now more polarised, especially by generation, than at any time its recent history. On social media here, many complain that family gatherings have become impossible because of irreconcilable differences of opinion about the President.

Trump also benefits from a psychological phenomenon that has received scientific scrutiny in recent years. People are stubborn in their beliefs. Studies show most of us double down on them, even after being shown clear evidence that the facts do not support our convictions.

Once Trump wins a voter, he seems to have an unbreakable hold on them: why else would his approval ratings have barely budged throughout his term?

All his life, Trump has always enjoyed stunning success in damage avoidance, and not only when he cheats on his wives.

He dodged any fallout in the 1980s when both his personal helicopter pilot and the provider of his fleet of casino aircraft, were caught running an international drug-trafficking ring.

Trump continued to employ the pilot after he had been indicted, later urging the judge to impose a lenient sentence.

Three decades ago, his lawyers negotiated an extraordinary private settlement in which his empire shed a total $3 billion debt — over $800 million of which he had personally guaranteed — without being forced, as he would normally be expected to, to declare personal bankruptcy.

That was followed by four corporate bankruptcies when he was CEO of a casino company — even as it paid him at least $83 million.

In 2005, I received by post the only Trump federal tax return the public has ever seen. I believe he sent it to me — an investigative journalist specialising in economics and tax issues — only because it showed a huge income for that year of $153 million.

Following my reports on the subject, the New York Times launched its own investigation into Trump’s financial affairs, uncovering mountains of business records and finding, among other things, that ‘President Trump participated in dubious tax schemes in the 1990s’.

For the rest of us, any one of these lemons would have barred a future political career.

Sitting today in the Oval Office, it’s clear Trump concocted the ultimate lemonade.

He also benefits from deep fractures in the Democratic Party, which is torn between progressives who want European-style benefits such as universal health care, and corporate-friendly Democrats such as Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee, who is tarnished with sleaze allegations.

Trump (pictured returning to the White House on June 1) is the fourth president out of 45 who lost the popular vote but won the White House. Presidents are voted in not by the citizens, but by ‘electors’ in each state, in a process called the Electoral College

Finally, in Trump’s favour, there is the peculiar way American presidents are elected. Trump is the fourth president out of 45 who lost the popular vote — the total number of votes cast nationally — but won the White House anyway.

Presidents are voted in not by the citizens of the country as a whole, but by ‘electors’ in each state, through a process called the Electoral College.

America’s ‘founding fathers’ designed the system in this way because they feared that the rabble might one day choose a madman or a zealot: it was a backstop against mob rule.

The Electoral College favours under-populated rural states —which tend to vote Republican — against more populous urban ones, whose allegiances are more likely Democrat. Put simply, your vote goes further in Wyoming (population 572,000) than in California (40 million).

Unfortunately, the arrangement does not work perfectly, which is why a man like Trump, who has no respect for our Constitution or for democracy, can win office even when most Americans do not want him there.

Come November, I expect Trump to lose the popular vote by up to 16 million ballots. Despite this, he will secure a second term if he wins just 270 of the 538 Electoral College votes. (In 2016, he won 304.) Suddenly, his approval rating of 43 per cent doesn’t seem quite so fatal.

The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that ‘there are no second acts in American lives’. Trump’s biography gives the lie to that.

That he succeeds when he should fail is testament to his extraordinary skills as a con artist, easily the most successful the world has ever known.

New York gangster John Gotti, boss of the Gambino crime family with whom Trump’s father did business, became known as ‘the Teflon Don’ because nothing would stick to him: he was acquitted at three major criminal trials having participated, it later emerged, in witness intimidation and jury tampering.

Though he is not a criminal like Gotti, Donald Trump’s unsinkable reputation shows he is a Teflon Don for our own era. Deceptions, lies and near-treasonous acts of disloyalty such as saying he trusts Vladimir Putin over American intelligence agencies merely slide off him.

The lesson for November’s election is clear. Don’t — for a single moment — write him off.

David Cay Johnston is the author of The Making Of Donald Trump and Editor -In-Chief of 

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