Four years ago, in discussing the 2016 US presidential election, I noted that Donald Trump would be, if elected, the first businessperson in the White House since Herbert Hoover (1929-33). (Most presidents come from the political class with a sprinkling of generals). Hoover was one of the world's youngest richest business executives just prior to World War I, partly because of his gold mining career in Western Australia.
But I would then joke that, despite his brilliant business career, Hoover presided over the slide into the Great Depression. Would Trump go the same way?
We now know the answer to that question.
Republican president Hoover served only one term as president. Trump runs the risk of going the same way as Hoover.
In 2016 Trump pulled off the greatest electoral surprise since Harry Truman's re-election in 1948. He spoke to a lot of Americans who felt ignored by the standard political class in both the Democratic and Republican parties. He promised to get out of the foreign wars of Bush and Obama, to revive the coal industry, and bring manufacturing back to the US. He promised to "drain the Washington swamp" of corrupt politics. This was a message that resonated with many Americans (despite his poor personal life).
Four years on, the US is still bogged down in foreign wars (and with a continued high rate of defence expenditure), the coal industry is still being killed by market pressures (investors are worried that coal could become a "stranded asset"), and there has not been a dramatic return of manufacturing back to the US. He has himself become part of the "Washington swamp" of corrupt politics – perhaps one of the most corrupt administrations in US history.
On top of those failures, there is now worry about the corona virus. The US has five per cent of the world's population and 25 per cent of the world's corona virus deaths.
Trump, as recently as February 2020, expected to go into the November election, boasting of the high rate of economic growth. (Whether the right indices are being used is another matter – Wall Street is not Main Street). Never the less, the media used Wall Street's remarkable figures as a guide to the strength of the US economy and those figures supported Trump's claims.
All of the three years of economic progress made under Trump then disappeared in less than two months. The US is now in a very bad recession – probably the worst since Hoover's Great Depression.
No US president has ever been re-elected in a recession (1932: Hoover, 1980: Carter, and 1992: George Bush senior). Trump hoped that he could somehow talk up the economy by talking down the extent of the corona crisis. He underestimated the risks of the virus (something the Australian and New Zealand governments did not do and so helped make their situations less dangerous).
Trump's language is now starting to change. He is less of a "booming economy" president, and more of a "wartime" president battling the "invisible enemy of the Wuhan virus".
Every president since 1812 who had a re-election campaign in a war, has been re-elected (for example, 1812: James Madison, 1864: Abraham Lincoln, and 1944: Franklin Roosevelt). Americans rally around the flag in a war and so decide that changing horses mid-stream would be wrong.
Trump's wartime narrative initially seemed to justify that new approach. But now the situation is looking even more dire for the president. The opinion poll figures are suggesting a November defeat.
Ironically Trump is competing against another lacklustre Democratic candidate. Joe Biden has spent much of the last few months isolated at home making amateurish videos from his home studio, biding his time and hoping for Trump to destroy himself.
Under US electoral law, there will need to be three televised debates between the candidates (Trump has suggested four). Biden will be a poor performer against Trump. Trump is a genius at communications.
But will Biden be so bad that voters will support Trump? Is the left so divided and fragmented that the Democratic campaign will be undermined by its own rivalries? (Some of that happened in 2016).
Voting is not compulsory in the US and so some disillusioned voters – jaded by both candidates - may just stay home. (In 2016 some Democratic voters would not vote for Trump and could not vote for Clinton, and so stayed home.) A better Democratic candidate would have helped clarify the situation.
The corona virus will also disrupt the voting procedure. Some people may be deterred from going to a voting station.
In short: Trump will have an even greater task of pulling off a surprise victory this year than he had in 2016. He may go the way of Hoover (and so be reviled by historians as Hoover was).