Why was Trump angry at an opinion poll?
Mike Cormack

Editor's note: Mike Cormack is a writer, editor and reviewer mostly focusing on China, where he lived from 2007 to 2014. He edited Agenda Beijing and is a regular book reviewer for the South China Morning Post. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Sometimes the Donald Trump administration does things that are simply jaw-dropping. It's all very well him saying that he is a "transformative" president who does things differently. There are still expectations of behavior and performance which come with the job. His tweet threatening Turkey should it attack Kurdish forces in Syria, and saying that "in his great and unmatched wisdom" he would be willing to "totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I've done it before!)", was jaw-dropping. 

The firing of FBI director James Comey was another. And so was his photo-op walk from the White House to a church, to pose with a Bible which he all too clearly has never read. The list goes on and on, as Trump cares nothing for decorum or dignity.

But still the shocks come. Just on June 10, the news came that the Trump campaign had  sent a cease and desist letter to the news channel CNN. For a grievous slander? For a terrible factual error? No – it was for CNN's opinion poll, which found Trump to be 14 percent behind his Democratic rival Joe Biden, at 55 percent to 41 percent. That was all. 

The letter – which adults actually sat down and wrote – said: "It's a stunt and a phony poll to cause voter suppression, stifle momentum and enthusiasm for the President, and present a false view generally of the actual support across America for the President."

CNN's response was rather marvelous, saying, "Your letter is factually and legally baseless. It is yet another bad faith attempt by the campaign to threaten litigation to muzzle speech it does not want voters to read or hear. Your allegations and demands are rejected in their entirety."

It all made you wonder who was thinking these stunts up, and why on earth Trump would sign off on them. At best, he was wanting to push CNN around and intimidate other opinion pollsters into being more friendly towards him. But there may in fact be a more cunning strategy here. 

Police fire tear gas and less-lethal rounds at protesters during a demonstration at the intersection of East Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue in St. Paul, Minn, May 29, 2020. /AP

Police fire tear gas and less-lethal rounds at protesters during a demonstration at the intersection of East Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue in St. Paul, Minn, May 29, 2020. /AP

Trump's re-election odds have tumbled into the gutter following his multiple failures of leadership over the coronavirus, the economic fallout and the protests and riots that broke out following the death of George Floyd. With Trump having said that he would not accept an election loss to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, and having more recently having cast doubt on mail-in ballots (having tweeted "There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent"), some kind of electoral shenanigans looks all too likely.

What Trump will want is for him is for opinion polls to suggest that he is at least in with a shout of winning the election. (Just as he was behind in most polls in 2016). Mail-in ballots naturally take longest to arrive and thus are counted last. 

But this causes a perceptual problem. Mail-in ballots have what has been called a "blue shift" because they are preponderantly taken up by Democrats (since the coronavirus tends to affect urban locations more severely, and since most urban districts tend to vote Democrat).

So if the initial votes are counted in a tight race and give Trump the lead before the mail-in votes are counted, there is a dangerous risk that he could declare himself the winner and dismiss the remaining votes as fraudulent, ineligible or whatever reason he can rustle up. If this affects the outcomes of the presidential election, it would lead to a constitutional crisis far beyond Nixon and Watergate: it would cast doubt into the very basis of American democracy.

This is the stuff of nightmares, perhaps. It may just be that the Trump campaign is simply, and ineffectively, trying to bully pollsters into elevating his popularity. What often intrigues about Trump's political maneuvers is their transparency, and their ineffectiveness – even for what ought to be the most powerful person on Earth. 

His threat to default on U.S. national debt payments was that of a man with a stick of dynamite in his hand, threatening to blow himself up. His withdrawal of the U.S. from the World Health Organization only reduces U.S. influence. His demands for NATO partners to pay up might have some first-glance right on their side but lack any historical context: Germany's military budget is relatively small for good reason.

Effective political campaigns are about drawing people in the name of a larger cause and motivating them to act on your behalf. But bad politics does the reverse: it shows the hollowness of the leader's ideals and their inability to organize anything, leading supporters to turn away. 

And so, with Trump's grasp on political reality appearing increasingly tenuous, as Republican leaders turn away from him, he looks like a man with a dwindling ability to lead, inspire or act.

At its worst, this becomes Bunker Syndrome, as poetically described by former Conservative MP Alan Clark: "Everyone round you is clicking their heels. The saluting sentries have highly polished boots and beautifully creased uniforms. But out there at the Front it's all disintegrating. The soldiers are starving in tatters and makeshift bandages. Whole units are mutinous and in flight."

Trump remains in the Oval Office, caged behind a fence to protect him from protestors, frenetically tweeting boasts and insults, his ploys and stratagems still being thought up and carried out. But the messages are garbled, the maneuvers  have no connection to reality, and fewer and fewer people are listening.

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