Trump Never Stopped Campaigning Long Enough to Govern

The president is “officially” kicking off his reelection bid—for perhaps the fifth time.

Flags for Donald Trump's reelection campaign at a factory in China in 2018
Flags for Donald Trump's reelection campaign at a factory in China in 2018 (Aly Song / Reuters)

How many times can Donald Trump announce his 2020 campaign? At least five, by my count.

The president is traveling to Orlando, Florida, today for what news outlets are calling a rally to “officially” or “formally” launch his reelection bid. It’s hard to know what those adverbs mean. Not only is today not the first time Trump has said he was starting his campaign, but he never really stopped campaigning in the first place.

If anything was official, it came on January 20, 2017, when, within hours of his inauguration, Trump filed documents with the Federal Election Commission to run for reelection. By then, he’d already told The Washington Post about his slogan for the reelection campaign: “Keep America Great.”

Just 29 days later, Trump threw the first rally of his reelection campaign. It’s probably not a coincidence that that rally was also in the crucial swing state of Florida—in Melbourne, about an hour from Orlando. There’s nothing all that unusual about a president hosting a rally; what was unusual was that Trump was advertising and paying for the event through his campaign, a decision that perplexed campaign-law experts I spoke with at the time. Some presidents have opted to separate events that are baldly political from those that are more presidential, but Trump doesn’t bother with that. (See, for example, his attacks on Speaker Nancy Pelosi in front of graves at Normandy, or his swipes at Joe Biden while in Japan.)

The president continued to host sporadic campaign-style rallies over the next year. Then, in March 2018, while House Republicans were scrambling to hold back a Democratic wave, Trump decided to pitch in for the effort by … announcing his new slogan for the 2020 race. Only it was the same slogan he’d previewed to the Post in January 2017. (This did not prevent the media from dutifully reporting he had unveiled a new slogan.)

Two months later, in May 2018, Trump once again presented the slogan as a brand-new reveal. “By the way, this is the first, for Indiana,” he said. “Our new slogan for 2020. You know what it is? ‘Keep America Great.’ Because we’re doing so well that in another two years, when we start the heavy campaign, ‘Make America Great Again’ wouldn’t work out too well.” Reporters once again gave him credit for novelty. Six months later, Trump’s allies were whomped at the polls. Meanwhile, his reelection campaign has rolled on, with Orlando its latest stop.

When Trump went to Florida in February 2017, I identified the rally as an example of the “permanent campaign”—a notion dating to the 1980s and since ensconced, in which officeholders maintain some of the methods and tactics of the campaign while remaining in office, from rallies to poll testing. It’s a staple for every president now. Bill Clinton, the president most associated with the permanent campaign, had the earliest “official” launch in recent memory, according to NPR—but Trump will edge him by three days.

But labeling Trump’s rally a part of the permanent campaign turned out not to be prescient so much as an egregious understatement. The point of a campaign launch used to be to signal that the period of governing—of passing legislation and enacting policy—was largely wrapping up, and that the focus would shift back to electoral politics. In the permanent-campaign paradigm, a president would run a policy track and a politics track in parallel.

Trump has fully unified them. He can’t turn back to campaigning from governing, because he never really bothered to start governing in the first place. With the exception of cutting taxes and especially building a wall on the Mexican border, he’s never shown much interest in learning how the levers of power work or in using them. Whereas Barack Obama held rallies in early 2009 to support the passage of his health-care bill, Trump held rallies in early 2017 for the purpose of being reelected nearly four years later.

The problem with skating from crisis to crisis with few accomplishments to show for it is that eventually the public becomes fatigued. There are signs of growing public boredom with Trump. A newsy, blockbuster interview with George Stephanopoulos this past weekend drew disappointing ratings. The New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger has noted declining reader interest in political news. The president’s outlandish remarks generally make a smaller splash than they once did. He seems to have tried to compensate for that by tweeting more, but the result is something like inflation in a market flooded with currency: Every tweet is less valuable.

As the incumbent, Trump enjoys advantages he did not in 2016, but his most important political tool remains his ability to control the discourse. With other methods losing some potency, repeated campaign launches—aided by obligingly credulous coverage—are one way to generate attention. If today’s event draws enough coverage, maybe he’ll officially launch his campaign a few more times. But sooner or later, campaign launches will have to give way to new methods of attracting attention, which are likely to be less decorous than elaborate campaign rallies.