In a year filled with October surprises, we may have one more. As a political novelist, I’m on the lookout for stories with conflict, drama, and unexpected plot twists. Here’s one stimulating possibility: the Phoenix-like rise of Donald Trump.
Trump’s first Twitter video from Walter Reed medical center revealed a subdued president, clearly fatigued, his voice raspy. The video humanized him, and in a strange twist of fate, there is a three-week window to portray a more presidential Trump.
After discharging himself from the hospital Monday evening, he has a rare opportunity. As the manager for two successful Los Angeles political campaigns, I was always searching for opportunities -- never let a crisis go to waste -- and this one could sway the election.
If, and it is a big if, Trump can merge his commanding presence with a more humbled attitude, the phoenix could rise. This could be a man who stared down death and won. The ultimate Comeback Kid.
The actions he can take to fuel the comeback might look something like this:
- Rise above the attacks. On CNN, Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy fired the brushback pitch: If Trump cannot be campaigning, he will have to rely on his surrogates, adding, “Unfortunately, one of his surrogates is Vladimir Putin.” CNN reporter Jim Sciutto tilted his head, slightly raised his eyebrows, but offered no push back. Neither should Trump. Let it go.
- No nicknames. “No Sleepy Joe” or “Crazy Nancy.” Be less divisive. This will assist Trump with the few remaining undecided voters, suburban women, and the reluctant Trump voters who agree with his policies but recoil from his blustery and, at times, bullying persona.
- Call Pelosi. Demonstrate bipartisanship by initiating a conference call with the House speaker and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for that matter -- to urge a stimulus bill's swift enactment. If the stimulus has passed without you, find another reason to call. The mere reaching out is a presidential move.
- Summon that reassuring person the world witnessed on the Walter Reed Twitter video. No complaints of being aggrieved. Discard your ego. The self-deprecating humor on the “slight age difference” between you and Melania was welcomed. Rinse and repeat.
- Remain aggressive, however. Be in command. Trump supporters do not want a neutered Trump, just a lower temperature on the rhetoric. If health permits, hold a limited number of rallies before crowds wearing masks. His speeches can be that of a fiery statesman. If his health does not permit, speak in controlled settings from the Rose Garden, the Oval Office, or elsewhere in the White House. Speak with the same demeanor displayed in the Twitter video.
In political fiction, novelists stretch the bounds of plausibility. This is getting harder to do. In 2020, we’ve seen a lifetime of October surprises, miracle comebacks, and tragedies. The entire year has stretched the imagination. A Trump comeback is plausible.
Can it really happen? As we imagine the next month, U.S. history provides divergent examples. In 1968, the New Nixon was unveiled for his presidential comeback. A smiling Richard Nixon hit the hustings with a less combative nature. Voters responded. In hindsight, the “new” Nixon was merely a camouflaged version of the old Nixon. His paranoia and vengeful attitudes toward his “enemies” returned, leading to Watergate and resignation. The New Nixon was a mirage.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan was shot, lying in the hospital and near death. Reagan was the eternal optimist with an actor’s sense of timing. Before surgery, he cracked to his medical team before the operation, “I hope you are all Republicans.” After surgery, he stood, smiling, waving from his hospital window. Comeback scenes lifted from a novel. Reagan enjoyed a landslide reelection three years later.
Can Trump pull off the Gipper’s comeback? Can he show Reagan's humanity or succumb to the darkest urges of Nixon? The verdict will be in soon.