WASHINGTON — If history is indeed written by the victors, the story of America’s epic 2020 title fight will read either like a heroic Hollywood script or a Season-8 “Simpsons” farce, depending on who wins.
In the far-right corner, Donald J. Trump — the self-proclaimed American champion of a “Rocky” sequel storyboard, right down to the movie-poster meme of his face atop the rippling torso, star-spangled trunks and Republican-red gloves of 1982-era Sylvester Stallone.
To his legion of critics, however, he’s more like Homer J. Simpson’s oblivious, thick-headed boxer who can’t be knocked over: bloodied and bruised by the rope-a-dope of indictments, impeachment and Nancy Pelosi, he somehow stays upright, still spoiling for a fight.
Whether he’s Rocky Balboa or “the Brick Hithouse,” this U.S. president won’t go down easily.
“We’re going to do very well; we’re way up in the polls,” Trump said with characteristic audacity the day after becoming only the third Oval Office occupant in American history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, and the first ever to seek re-election despite wearing the ultimate presidential stain.
“I don’t feel like I’m being impeached, because it’s a hoax. It’s a setup. It’s a horrible thing they did.”
They, of course, are the Democrats, in the throes of selecting their nominee for what will surely be the most closely watched battle for the White House in modern history. The front-runner remains former vice-president Joe Biden, 77, whose experience, folksy charm and moderate politics outweigh for many his foibles and fumbles.
Biden’s rivals include self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, Medicare-for-all champion Sen. Elizabeth Warren, upstart millennial Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg and billionaire former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, to name but a few.
“(Biden) is closer to the centre of the electorate than his major rivals Warren, Sanders, Mayor Pete and maybe Mike, and he is closer to the centre of the Democratic electorate,” said Paul Beck, a professor of politics at Ohio State University in Columbus.
“That is why Trump is focusing his attacks on him right now, trying to soften him up for the campaign.”
Canada in particular will be paying close attention to the beltway drama in 2020.
The tension surrounding the new North American free-trade agreement has largely dissipated, but as the White House turns its focus toward securing a trade deal with China, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is hoping to make that agreement conditional on the release of two Canadians detained in Beijing.
Diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor were taken into custody in December 2018, shortly after Canada arrested Chinese tech executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant. Canada has asked the U.S. to refrain from signing on until the two men are freed.
Just how much time Trump has for Trudeau these days is another matter.
At the height of the NAFTA trade tensions, Trump called the prime minister “very dishonest and weak” during the tumultuous finale of the G7 summit in 2018. Trudeau likely didn’t help things earlier this month when a hot mic caught him gossiping about the president with fellow world leaders during NATO meetings in London.
“Well, he’s two-faced,” Trump said of the prime minister the following day.
“Honestly with Trudeau he’s a nice guy, but the truth is I called him out on the fact he’s not paying two per cent” — Trump has long harangued his fellow NATO leaders over their financial commitment to the alliance — “and I guess he’s not happy about it.”
For his part, Trudeau attributed the controversy to Trump’s impromptu photo-op news conference, where he announced a surprise decision to hold the 2020 G7 summit at Camp David, and described Canada-U.S. relations as “extremely strong” and “very good.”
That message could be a hard sell for Trudeau, considering the speed at which his Buckingham Palace gossip entered the U.S. political and pop culture zeitgeist. It has already featured prominently in a Biden campaign ad, as well as “Saturday Night Live,” with a well-coiffed Jimmy Fallon as Trudeau.
“The world sees Trump for what he really is,” Biden intones in the ad: “insincere, ill-informed and corrupt, dangerously incompetent and incapable, in my view, of world leadership.”
The Democratic field, which once bulged at the seams with some 28 names, is now down to 15, although the conversation is now largely confined to Biden, his three closest challengers and Bloomberg, whose vast resources and political experience seem to be helping him rise above his late entrance.
But love Trump or loathe him — and in the U.S. these days, those are pretty much the only options — the brash, bombastic, CNN-bashing commander-in-chief remains the centre of America’s political universe.
“If the election is a referendum on Trump, he probably will lose, but if Trump can turn it into a choice between him and a damaged Democratic nominee, Trump has a good chance of winning,” Beck said.
“His strategy will be to try to destroy his opponent in ways we are getting a sense of already.”
Given the outsized reputation of the man in the White House, it almost doesn’t matter who gets the Democratic nod, said Henry Jacek, a U.S.-born professor at McMaster University in Hamilton and a lifelong student of the vagaries of American politics.
“For the most part, I don’t think the Democrats really care; they just want to vote for somebody who gets rid of Trump,” said Jacek, whose Pennsylvania upbringing gave him a ringside seat for the steady decline of blue-collar, middle-class America.
“They just dislike him so much — and there’s all sorts of reasons, but probably the most important is they don’t think he’s a proper president. He’s not civil; you know, it’s just not what they were taught how a president should act.”
To hear it from Pelosi, the Speaker in the Democrat-controlled House and a persistent thorn in Trump’s side, the stakes in the 2020 election can’t be overstated.
Winning “is absolutely imperative,” she told a CNN town hall earlier this month. “Civilization as we know it today is at stake in the next election.”
In a letter Pelosi submitted to the House during the impeachment debate earlier this month, a group of U.S. historians cited the 228-year-old words of founding father Alexander Hamilton in laying out the case against Trump.
“Hamilton understood, as he wrote in 1792, that the republic remained vulnerable to the rise of an unscrupulous demagogue, ‘unprincipled in private life, desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents … despotic in his ordinary demeanour,'” they wrote.
Given the spectacle of the president’s first term, experts use strong language to describe what two-term Trump might look like — language that would, under normal circumstances, seem excessive and hyperbolic.
But ‘excessive and hyperbolic’ hardly seem adequate to describe the last three years, let alone the next five.
“This will be the most momentous election in my lifetime, now 75 years,” said Beck, who cites Trump’s scorched-earth approach on trade and foreign policy, his “evisceration” of U.S. efforts to reform health care and backpedalling on climate change as just some aspects of the president’s legacy.
“Election to a second term will vindicate Trump in all that he has done in his first term and embolden him to do even more in these directions. And I fear that his authoritarian impulses will turn him into a dictator.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 29, 2019.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press