IT’S already shaping up to be a nasty contest the likes of which has rarely been seen in US politics. Frankly, whichever way you look at it, the coming US presidential election is a scary prospect. To begin with, it will be conducted against the backdrop of a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and infected two million more. The outbreak has also devastated the economy, with unemployment rising by more than 40 million in a matter of weeks.

Add to this the growing racial turmoil, civil unrest and an incumbent authoritarian president willing to deploy whatever nefarious means necessary to avoid electoral defeat, and all the components exist for a US election facing unparalleled risks to its conduct and integrity.

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How telling it is about the mood in America right now that just a few days ago, Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, warned that he could foresee a scenario whereby the military would intervene should President Donald Trump refuse to relinquish power following a defeat in November’s election.

“I am absolutely convinced they will escort him from the White House with great dispatch,” Biden warned, speaking on the US talk-news programme The Daily Show, adding that his single greatest concern is that the president will “try to steal this election”.

How telling it is, too, of the prevailing polarised political mood, that Trump has decided to hold his first re-election campaign rally for several months on the date that African Americans celebrate the end of slavery. Just as that date June 19, traditionally known as “Juneteenth”, is especially significant, so too is Trump’s choice of the city Tulsa in Oklahoma. For it was there in May and June 1921 that a white mob attacked the prosperous black neighbourhood of Greenwood, known as the “Black Wall Street”, with guns and explosives, killing up to 300 people and destroying about 1000 businesses and homes.

Unsurprisingly, given recent protests against racist violence in the country triggered by the police killing of George Floyd, Trump’s move is recognised by many Americans as being the provocation it undoubtedly is.

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“This isn’t just a wink to white supremacists – he’s throwing them a welcome party,” tweeted former Democratic presidential candidate senator Kamala Harris of California, in response to the rally.

Two of America’s leading newspapers echoed Harris’s reaction, with both The New York Times and The Washington Post calling Trump’s decision “racially motivated trolling” and timing akin to “blasphemy”.

If recent opinion polls are anything to go by then many more ordinary Americans also appear exasperated and angry over the president’s recent conduct. As Trump’s campaign team are well aware, the latest polling figures are not good.

According to the polling data aggregator RealClearPolitics (RCP), Trump’s job approval rating is down now to 42%, as low as it’s been since last year. And matched against Biden, Trump trails by an average of eight points.

In the case of one poll in the aggregator, Gallup, his support was down a staggering 10 points to 39% over the past month, with Biden leading him by an average of 10 points among registered voters nationally.

In the key battleground states it’s the same story, with the RCP average showing Biden tied with Trump in North Carolina, up by three points in Wisconsin, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, and up by seven in Michigan.

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Even Georgia appears to be a dead heat. Last week’s primary election chaos there, hampered by ballot shortages and mechanical malfunctions that saw voters waiting for hours in largely minority areas, also served as a warning for the perils states face come November. It’s precisely that kind of chaos that Trump’s campaign will doubtless use to its advantage.

Right now, though, it is only in Texas that Trump has a very narrow lead, a state that has not voted for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976. Individual polls also provide little comfort to the president, showing that Biden has significantly bigger swing state margins.

Even traditional on-message Republican pundits see the writing on the wall, while doing their best to sweeten what is a very bitter polling pill right now.

“It’s not that Joe Biden is doing great. He isn’t … it’s that swing voters have been watching and listening to the president, and a lot of them don’t like what they’re hearing,” insisted Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, speaking to the Financial Times last week.

That Trump is unhappy with current polls goes without saying, but especially so when it comes to the result of one conducted by CNN, the media broadcaster he has long despised.

CNN’s results showed the president trailing Biden by a scarcely believable 14 points. It so incensed Trump that he ordered his campaign team to fire off a near farcical cease-and-desist letter to the broadcaster demanding that it retract and apologise for the poll.

It’s all a far cry from earlier this year when Trump was riding higher on a strong economy and soaring stock market following his impeachment trial acquittal.

“This is what can happen when one is in the bunker,” Doug Heye, a Republican strategist told the Financial Times, adding that it was a “classic example” of staff impressing a boss by “fighting” for him despite no chance of success.

While the polls right now suggest the president is in a perilous position, Trump of course is no stranger to political crisis, and he did famously win the 2016 election in the face of it.

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Certainly if the election were to be held tomorrow, Trump would most likely not survive. But it’s not being held tomorrow. November 3 is still five months away, and 2020 has been nothing if not a complete political roller coaster in the US so far, with who knows what political surprises potentially still in the offing.

Polls, as we all know, are only snapshots of current moods and trends, and not predictions of election results. Despite everything railed against him, events may yet, somehow, benefit Trump. It could be that his handling of the next five months wins people back and even some over to his side, or that the disproportionate Electoral College and voter suppression, or some combination of the two, puts him back in the White House for four more years.

If Trump is good at one thing, it’s turning a situation on its head to his advantage. The country might be in chaos – in great part of Trump’s own making – but the president will undoubtedly harness this. The obvious place for him to start is by using the recent violence and unrest to campaign on a law-and-order ticket.

Exploring the current situation in an article for Al Jazeera last week, the American journalist Scott Norvell highlighted a historical parallel from 1968 when Republican Richard Nixon summoned his

“silent majority” to the polls and ended up winning the US presidency, despite being challenged from the right by segregationist George Wallace.

AS Norvell pointed out, academic research published in the aftermath of the 1968 election “found convincing evidence that the widespread violent unrest that year – arguably the most tumultuous year of the past five decades before 2020 came along – steered US voters into the Republican camp and tipped the election in Nixon’s favour”.

Other America watchers including The Economist last week have also made the case that history suggests “Republicans benefit from street violence, whereas Democrats gain from peaceful protests”.

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But in the wake of the latest protests, a Washington Post-Schar School poll has also provided evidence suggesting the contrary right now, with most US voters supporting the protests and believing the police are in need of reform.

Such findings, of course, will not stop Trump in his struggle to regain the campaigning initiative, by reverting to the “law and order” line he used in 2016 and the 2018 midterm elections.

This time, however, instead of exaggerated dire warnings about Mexican “rapists” and migrant “caravans”, he is rallying his core supporters, some of whom are from the far right, using largely baseless claims about violent, anti-fascist protesters destroying America. That much was evident in a tweet he made last week saying that “these ugly Anarchists must be stooped (sic)”.

Given Trump’s record of ignoring or dismissing the restraints built into the American political system, there are a number of options at his disposal should he decide to upend the election. He could, for example, declare a national emergency on the grounds of national security. He has, after all, more than 120 statutory emergency powers in his political arsenal, according to the law and public policy institute the Brennan Centre for Justice in New York. In practice there are few restrictions in place to prevent him using them.

Speaking to Vanity Fair magazine this month, Cornell Belcher, a strategist and pollster on both of Obama’s successful White House runs, warned of the role fear could play in helping Trump with his election campaign over the next five months.

“There is perhaps nothing as powerful, historically, in American politics as fear,” Belcher said. “Clearly Trump is trying to make Middle American white people terrified of the black and brown hordes. If he’s winning 57-58% of the white vote he can pull the exact same inside straight as he did in 2016,” Belcher added, before positing the crucial question.

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“Will Americans be more fearful of these young people in the streets demanding justice, or of four more years of Donald Trump?”

Should the latter prove to be the case, then the biggest concern of many political observers is that the battle dividing America might still not be over as far as the president’s concerned.

“Here’s the real danger if Donald Trump loses the 2020 election”, ran the headline of an article on the CNN website last Thursday. Picking up on Trump’s long history of refusing to ever acknowledge defeat, and instead claiming he was cheated out of victory by shadowy forces, the writer presented an alarming but perfectly plausible scenario.

“What the lack of any sort of formal concession from Trump would do is clear. For his legions of adoring supporters, they would also never believe that Biden had won -- or that he was the recognised president, whether or not the electoral map or the popular vote proved it,” observed the author Chris Cillizza, CNN’s editor-at-large.

As Cillizza explained further, the implications of this are obvious, meaning that for many Americans, Biden would be viewed as an illegitimate president and, therefore, not someone who needed to be listened to.

“The result isn’t hard to imagine: an even deeper divide within the country between the Trumpists and everyone else. A divide that would make Biden’s pledge to create ‘One America’ again an absolute pipe dream,” Cillizza concluded.

As America undergoes this traumatic period of soul-searching, Trump is now facing multiple crises that cannot be solved by a single tweet. This will not stop him trying, of course, just as negative poll results will not deter him from pulling out all the stops in seeking another term in office.

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As he turns 74 years old today, any number of things could change Donald Trump’s political fortunes in the next five months before the election. Who knows, perhaps the US economy will make a leap forward or he can ride on the back of America creating a vaccine for Covid-19? More likely, though, if he wins it will be because of his usual disregard for political norms and a willingness to sacrifice the great good of the United States for his own opportunist benefit.

Then again, perhaps the ongoing national trauma has at last finally done enough to show Americans the true face of Trump. He will not go easily if at all. The only certain thing for now is that a perfect storm is coming in the shape of November’s election.