The Trump campaign is busy fighting the battle for hearts and minds this week.
Not voters’ hearts and minds—at the moment, the president’s reelection campaign is losing those left and right, with many recent polls showing his position slipping against the presumptive Democratic candidate, Joe Biden.
Instead, the Trump reelection team is busy trying to soothe the president’s own troubled mind, and his insecurities. This week, the campaign team bought more advertising time over the next month in the Washington, D.C., area, on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. That follows an existing set of buys in May and June.
Spending money this way makes little strategic sense. Going back to 1961, Washington has never voted for a Republican in a presidential contest. Maryland hasn’t gone red since 1988. Donald Trump has promised to put Virginia in play, which is a dubious claim, but in any case that battle won’t be won with early advertising in the heavily Democratic areas around the capital.
There is, however, one obsessive television viewer in the D.C. area whom the ads can sway: Trump. The Daily Beast reported earlier this week that the hope is to pacify the president, who has gotten more agitated about his reelection prospects as the polls, the economy, and the pandemic all look gloomy for him.
A typical political campaign might try out new strategies for reaching voters. For example, amid a nationwide shift on race, the president could find ways to cut a middle path and reach out to new voters. That’s highly unlikely, though, because the president has a long history of racist remarks and actions, and because he is resistant to ever changing his approach. He’s also liable to turn his fire on his aides, and reportedly threatened to sue his own campaign manager not long ago. So rather than persuade the voters to support him, the campaign is spending to persuade him not to worry.
That’s not the only Trump-directed expenditure this week. On Monday, CNN released a poll showing Trump 14 points behind Biden, driving the president to distraction. First, he hired the notoriously unreliable Republican pollster John McLaughlin to produce an “analysis” debunking the poll. (Spoiler: It didn’t.)
Second, a lawyer for the campaign sent CNN a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that the network retract the poll. While Trump loves to issue phony lawsuit threats, this one is especially ridiculous. Not only is the poll covered under First Amendment protections; there’s no evidence that it’s wrong. (While the poll shows a larger lead for Biden than most, the trends match others.)
Unsurprisingly, CNN declined to retract the poll, and its general counsel took the opportunity to have some fun with his response: “To my knowledge, this is the first time in its 40-year history that CNN had been threatened with legal action because an American politician or campaign did not like CNN’s polling results. To the extent we have received legal threats from political leaders in the past, they have typically come from countries like Venezuela or other regimes where there is little or no respect for a free and independent media.”
Ad buys, pollster analyses, billable hours for lawyers: These things don’t come free (unless you stiff your vendors). Luckily for the Trump campaign, it has an enormous war chest to spend, though whether its donors expected their contributions to be used to soothe the president’s worries, rather than to aid his prospects of reelection, is an interesting question.
But the costs don’t end with Trump-campaign outlays. Even Trump’s frivolous demands on the press impose a cost on democracy. CNN is a big, powerful organization that won’t be rattled by a goofy demand, but letters like this one serve to normalize bogus attacks on the media, and the threat of litigation might give other outlets pause in the future. (Trump has tried other, more pernicious ways to bully CNN, like attempting to block its parent company from completing a merger.)
Nor are all the monetary costs borne by Trump’s donors, who at least knew when they wrote the checks that the president might set their money on fire. Taxpayers often have to bear the costs, too. Amid raucous and occasionally violent protests in D.C., Trump was briefly taken to a bunker in the White House basement—a reasonable precaution, though one that Trump felt the need to deny. In response, the administration first mounted a massive operation to clear the area around the White House—damaging the reputation of the military for staying out of domestic affairs, as I wrote yesterday—and then erected massive new barriers around the executive residence, drawing comparisons to the Green Zone in Baghdad.
It’s not yet clear what the temporary fencing cost, and the U.S. should never scrimp on necessary protection for the president. But there are reasons to believe that this was not necessary. Since the violent law-enforcement crackdown on peaceful protesters on June 1, designed to pave the way for a photo op, protests have been calm in Washington. Yesterday, workers began removing the new barriers.
The quick, pathetic arc suggests that the audience for these measures was not the public—was there ever really a chance that anyone was going to storm the White House?—but instead the embattled president. That puts them in the same category as the campaign ad buys and cease-and-desist letters. At a time when the nation is crying out for leadership and consolation, the president not only isn’t prepared to give it; he’s the one who needs soothing most of all. Forget “Keep America great” and “Transition to greatness.” The Trump team’s real mantra is “Make the president feel secure again.”