Donald Trump, a man for whom imagery is everything, is said to be livid at the low turnout at Saturday's campaign rally in Tulsa.
Who can blame him? Politicians like crowds, and the president - obsessed with ratings and imagery - found himself playing to a two-thirds empty room.
What's ominous for Trump's re-election campaign is that the location was carefully chosen for its presumed red-state reliability. After all, Trump won Oklahoma four years ago by a crushing 36 points; the Sooner state is about as red as red can be. The turnout was supposed to have been so overwhelming that an outdoor stage was built next to the BOK Arena for a second presidential appearance; that was cancelled.
For a man who fears being laughed at, embarrassed and humiliated, it was laughable, embarrassing and humiliating.
History teaches us this: Whenever a presidential campaign takes on the whiff of failure, it can quickly feed upon itself and make matters worse. Two recent one-term presidents come to mind: Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush.
The Carter comparison
In terms of patriotism, ethics and morals, there can be no comparison between our 39th and 41st presidents and Trump, of course. Carter is, and Bush was, honorable and decent. Both wore the uniform of our country and devoted a lifetime to public service and giving back. This has never been, and never will, be said of Trump.
From another standpoint, however - presidents struggling to win a second term - the parallels are clear.
May 2020? 13.3%. But keep in mind that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says it should really be 16.3%, because of data that was "misclassified."
Stock market comparisons are also unfavorable. Through last Friday, the S&P 500 was down 4.1% this year. From January to June 21, 1980 it rose 5.6% - nearly a 10-point advantage for Carter - while over the same period in 1992 it fell 3.2%.
I cite unemployment and stock market data because these are the things that Trump spent three years bragging about. So it's only fair to cite them here and use them for comparative purposes.
Data that was poor for Carter and Bush is worse for Trump. On top of this, additional events created images that, fairly or not, seeped into the public consciousness and dragged each president down. Carter and Bush were unable to halt their downward spirals. Can Trump? As he likes to say, "We'll see what happens."
As 1980 dawned, Carter's Gallup approval was 56%. But Iran had seized dozens of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy two months before, and as the crisis played out daily on T.V., Carter began to sink. There was also a crisis-within-a-crisis, when a daring commando raid to free the hostages failed in April; eight U.S. service members were killed when two aircraft crashed in the Iranian desert. The military botched the raid, codenamed "Operation Eagle Claw," but Commander-in-Chief Carter took the heat.
Within two months, Cater's Gallup approval had collapsed about a dozen points to 31%. The president never recovered and was crushed that November by Ronald Reagan.
Further into the Bush comparison
Bush, in contrast, was a foreign policy master whose steady leadership led the United States through the fall of the Berlin Wall, a rout of Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. A year before election day, he enjoyed an approval of 59%. But a mild recession in 1991 - GDP slipped 0.11% - began dragging him down.
Previously from author: What makes 2020 so uniquely awful? It distills a century of horrors into one year
Again, imagery played a role. In February 1992, the president, attending a National Grocers Association convention in Florida, was shown a new type of checkout scanner, which could weigh foods and use damaged bar codes. There was only one reporter there, Gregg McDonald of the Houston Chronicle, who wrote that Bush had a "look of wonder" on his face. Photographers captured the scene.
The New York Times, which wasn't even there, proceeded to run a story headlined "Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed," which quickly mushroomed into a broader theme, largely unfair, that Bush was out of touch with how ordinary Americans lived. This, combined with the mild recession which ended in 1992, hurt the president further, and as Americans went to the polls that November, Bush's approval was in the mid-30s. Enter Bill "It's the Economy, Stupid" Clinton.
From personal experience: I helped create the worst photo-op ever. Thanks to Trump, now it's only second worst.
Singular events can assume a life of their own and have the power to alter public perceptions for better or worse. Carter and Bush learned this the hard way. No one knows this better than Donald Trump - a president who watches television endlessly, lives to be on television, rose to power from television. Of course he is livid with the poor turnout in Tulsa. Surely he is aware that other presidents were shown the door despite more favorable conditions than he's dealing with, and I haven't even mentioned his image-poor handling of the ongoing pandemic and recent unrest.
It's late June. Trump's Gallup approval is currently 39%. The numbers are bad, the imagery is bad. A lot can happen in four months, but for this president it may be too late for a turnaround.
Paul Brandus, the founder and White House bureau chief of West Wing Reports, is the author of "Under This Roof: The White House and the Presidency." Follow him on Twitter: @WestWingReport.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: If Carter & Bush couldn't win, Trump's re-election doesn't look likely