The First Month of Trump’s Campaign Has Been a Doozy

Since a campaign-launch speech four weeks ago, the president has repeatedly turned to racially divisive issues and largely ignored the booming economy.

Jonathan Drake / Reuters

One month ago—exactly 31 days—Donald Trump announced in Florida that he was launching his campaign for president. The launch was something of a sham, as I wrote at the time: He’d been periodically launching the campaign, and its slogan—“Keep America Great”—since even before his inauguration.

Nonetheless, the one-month mark provides a good perspective for considering the president’s reelection campaign so far. Race has been at the heart of his campaign since that June launch, not just in the past week, while Trump has largely declined to focus on the economy, despite its strength. As for that much-touted slogan? It’s barely a blip these days.

If the past month has shown anything, it’s that Trump, instead of campaigning on his administration’s signature accomplishments—cutting regulation, appointing conservative judges, presiding over steady economic growth—seems intent on reprising his 2016 run, a campaign largely built on fear, resentment, and division.

Trump has demonstrated this week that he intends to run a campaign heavily focused on distinguishing between those he sees as fully American (white people) and those whose citizenship he views as conditional (people of color, especially women). He has made this clear not only with his sustained attacks on “the squad” of progressive Democratic lawmakers, but also through direct statements. He has boasted to the press that he’s winning the political fight, and his aides have told reporters that he intends to center racial division as a message for his campaign.

While Trump has been more explicit about this in the past few days, he’s brought a heightened focus to racial issues for much of the past month. Consider the two major domestic-policy questions of the past four weeks: a citizenship question on the census and border policy.

On June 27, nine days after the Florida speech, the Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration’s effort to place a question about U.S. citizenship on next year’s census. Though the justices left an ostensible legal path to try again, the government acknowledged there wasn’t time to continue the fight and add the question, and it signaled that it would abandon the effort, both in court proceedings and in a statement from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. But Trump insisted on a fight anyway, forcing reluctant Justice Department attorneys to restart their fight and threatening an executive order to place the question on the census.

Then, one week ago, he announced a surrender (which, naturally, he framed as a win) on the citizenship question. To summarize, Trump spent two weeks framing a national conversation over citizenship, even though his own aides had already explained to him that it wouldn’t result in the question being included. It was all performative, an effort to show his voters that he wanted to have this fight and wouldn’t back down.

The other ongoing battle has been over immigration. Of course, this is not new, but the past month has seen revelations of how bad conditions are in camps where migrants are being held, both from observers and from a Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report. Reports have also revealed stomach-churning social-media groups of Customs and Border Patrol staffers.

In the face of these revelations, the Trump administration has questioned the credibility of those reports, attacked the reporters, and recommitted itself to pursuing the same course. On Monday, the administration announced new rules for asylum seekers that immigrant-rights advocates say violate federal law and international treaties, while Politico reports Friday that the White House wants to reduce the quota for refugees in 2020 to effectively zero. Whether these rules actually go into place may be, like the border wall, somewhat beside the point. They are more important to Trump as political rhetoric than as policy, and the rhetoric is focused on race.

On foreign policy, Trump has quietly made several consequential policy steps that push the U.S. away from confrontations with adversaries and distance it from allies. He seems to have surrendered any hope of denuclearizing North Korea, as he once promised, and after talking tough at Tehran, has opted (so far) to ratchet down tensions with Iran, even calling back an attack 10 minutes before the strike, according to his account. Yet Trump also effectively forced the resignation of the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the United States over (accurate) comments he made in private cables that were leaked.

There’s a notable omission from this: much discussion of the economy. By all common standards, this should be Trump’s strongest asset, as my colleague Ron Brownstein writes. With the stock market rising and unemployment at record lows, it’s a rare bright spot for Trump. Moreover, while experts will tut-tut that presidential decisions usually have only a marginal effect on the economy, positive growth tends to reelect presidents.

Yet Trump has pushed the good news to the background. It’s not that he never talks about it. He tweeted about his economic record on Wednesday, but in the context of a vote about impeachment in the House. The question is one of emphasis and sustained attention. Trump talked about the economy at the start of his June 18 rally in Florida, for example.

“Our country is now thriving, prospering, and booming,” he said. “And frankly, it’s soaring to incredible new heights. Our economy is the envy of the world, perhaps the greatest economy we’ve had in the history of our country. And as long as you keep this team in place, we have a tremendous way to go. Our future has never, ever looked brighter or sharper.”

But he didn’t return to the subject much more in the speech, and at the Wednesday rally in Greenville, North Carolina, where the crowd chanted “Send her back!” about Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar, Trump once again briefly ran through his talking points about the economy and then moved on to the race-baiting.

When Trump does talk about the economy, it’s often to bash the Federal Reserve for its handling of interest rates. Though the president tries to frame this with nuance—imagine how much better things would be if only they listened to me!—his complaints undercut his message of economic strength.

There’s a curious mirroring going on between Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. One would expect Trump to want to speak about the economy, but the president, with his unmatched ability to control the news cycle, keeps changing the issue to racial division. By contrast, one would expect Pelosi to want to talk about anything but the economy, but she and other Democratic leaders have expressed frustration with the squad changing the subject away bread-and-butter issues, which Pelosi sees as winners, despite the strong economy. (Democrats have focused on health care and on the minimum wage, passing a bill on Thursday raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, though the bill is likely dead on arrival in the Senate.)

All of Trump’s campaign themes are provisional. Trump is—in campaign tactics, if not in his governing style—a pragmatist: He likes to try ideas and motifs out on crowds, see if they work well, and then either embrace or discard them. On Thursday, he unconvincingly tried to disavow the “Send her back” chant, but as Aaron Blake noted, Trump also disavowed “Lock her up” chants in 2016, only to later adopt them as a motto. And as I recently reported with several colleagues, Trump has long demonstrated racist attitudes, but his breakthrough in politics coincided with his newfound recognition of how effectively he could wield race as a political tool.

There’s every reason to expect that Trump will continue his experimentation as the presidential race progresses. Which brings us to the slogan that Trump reannounced, with great fanfare, in Florida. It made an appearance at the rally in Greenville—fleetingly. Trump brought it up at the tail end of the speech, as an afterthought, and even then only with a wistful look back at its predecessor: “You know, look, how do you give up MAGA?” Like the economy, “Keep America Great” just can’t seem to keep Trump’s attention.