President Trump has laid out his case for reelection.
In a series of speeches over the past several days, the president has spelled out, or at least gestured toward, the major themes of his coming campaign. There will be other themes, to be sure—mostly, one presumes, attacks on Joe Biden—but the president’s recent speeches in Tulsa, in Phoenix, and at Mount Rushmore all outline what appear to be the main components of his affirmative case for a second term.
The argument is an odd one—a brew of nostalgia for an economy that the president’s incompetence has actively helped ruin, magical thinking about the course of the pandemic, and white racial grievance and identity politics.
The argument is not based on any programmatic promises or some kind of policy agenda for a second term in office. In fact, when asked recently what he wants to do in a second term, Trump went off on an extended and barely coherent riff about the word experience. There’s no equivalent to his 2016 assurance that “I alone can fix it” or his promises to shake things up or drain the swamp or build a wall. Nor, for that matter, is there anything like his broad assertions about his great powers as a dealmaker, someone who could do business with a hostile Congress as easily as with Vladimir Putin.
Largely gone as well are major themes of Trump’s speeches during his years in office. He’s not vamping about the “Russia hoax” these days. The impeachment saga makes only a relatively brief appearance. He’s not complaining about the “coup attempt” or the “deep state” much either.
So what is Trump’s case for reelection?
The argument proceeds as follows—with the important proviso that we are imposing a bit more discipline and organization on it than is obvious in Trump’s speeches themselves:
First, Trump wants voters to support him based not on the current state of the economy—crushed as it is by the coronavirus pandemic—but on how well the economy was doing before the pandemic. Or as he put it in a June speech in Phoenix: “Before the plague came in, we had the best of everything. We had the best interest rates. We had the best employment rates. We had the best job numbers ever.” Having made the economy great prior to the pandemic, he argues, he is the best man to, well, make the economy great again—unlike the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who, Trump says, will “raise your taxes like crazy.”
Second, while declaring that he can help the country recover from “the plague,” Trump also insists that the plague is not really that bad. “I have done a phenomenal job with it,” he told the crowd in Tulsa, trumpeting the limitations his administration imposed in late January on travel from China and ignoring the skyrocketing number of new coronavirus cases in the United States. At the same rally, he suggested that “my people” should “slow the testing down, please,” to keep the number of new cases low. The president seems to believe he may not need to do anything to address the pandemic at all. As The Washington Post reports, he has suggested 19 times since February that the virus might just “go away”—most recently on July 1.
The president’s other themes place him in familiar culture-war territory. In what The New York Times politely describes as an effort to “exploit race and cultural flash points,” Trump has, third, positioned himself against protesters pulling down or defacing statues memorializing the Confederacy or other racist figures or causes. To listen to his rhetoric, the issue isn’t one of a handful of demonstrators but an immense, coordinated effort to blot out American history—though just how remains unclear. “The left-wing mob,” he warned in his Mount Rushmore speech, “is trying to demolish our heritage so they can replace it with a new repressive regime that they alone control.”
Trump thus links statues to a fourth theme: the “unhinged left-wing mob” seeking to “punish, cancel, and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands.” Trump is all in against such repression, calling it at Mount Rushmore “a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.” He promises to stand against this.
And this leads to the final variation on Trump’s culture-war pitch and fifth major theme: Not only does the “left-wing mob” want to tear down statues and punish conservatives, but this supposed radical cohort will bring about the destruction of law and order altogether in its calls to defund police. In many of the president’s recent speeches, this blurs together with the imagined danger of “open borders”—one of the president’s older themes that has retreated in centrality but always lurks close to the surface. “They want to punish your thought, but not their violent crimes,” he said at Tulsa. “They want to abolish bail, abolish and open up your borders. They want open borders.”
Finally, Trump argues that Biden is too weak to prevent this chaos. Consequently, voters—presumptively white ones—have a choice between order and a reopened, rejuvenated economy, and the barbarian hordes coming for their treasure and Confederate statues.
Trump’s case has obvious problems, both moral and intellectual. But, more pragmatically, the argument is flawed from an electoral standpoint. For example, even voters who believe that Trump deserves credit for the pre-coronavirus economy may worry that his disastrous response to the virus has contributed to the economic devastation the country now faces. Trump’s approval rating on his handling of the pandemic is not good; a solid and growing majority disapproves of it, and a whopping 85 percent of the country is either somewhat or extremely worried about the economy. Those aren’t good numbers against which to ask for a vote as an incumbent.
Moreover, the human costs of the pandemic beg for an electoral reckoning, one that Biden is likely to demand of Trump and to which the current president is extremely vulnerable. His propensity to wish the matter away only exacerbates this problem. And the United States’s performance cannot convincingly be portrayed as admirable in the face of rising COVID-19 case numbers not seen anywhere else in the developed world.
The attempt to tag Biden with the excesses of every anarchist protester is also unpersuasive. Whatever Biden is, he’s no leftist firebrand, and his rhetoric has not given aid or comfort to demonstrators engaged in illegal activity—who are not obviously part of his political camp in any event. Painting him as responsible for controlling the supposed mob Trump warns about will be tricky, particularly because Trump himself is the incumbent, and many Democratic primary voters supported Biden as a moderate alternative to more radical choices—as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, no moderate herself, pointed out recently. Finally, despite hopeful noises from his campaign that Trump’s culture-war shtick will ingratiate him with frightened suburban white women, the polls don’t bear this out. Rather, the attempt to stand behind law enforcement against protesters is actually unpopular, given the current public horror at police behavior, and sympathy with the large majority of protesters who have remained peaceful.
So Trump is swimming upriver with this case.
But he may not have much choice. He hardly has an obvious alternative argument for his own reelection. He could have his campaign generate a policy program for a second term, but that would be very off-brand. Trump has never talked policy much, beyond promises to build walls and make better trade deals. And a sudden lunge in that direction would be utterly unconvincing. Trump is left with grievance and magic because he’s running for reelection while presiding over the smoldering ruins of an economy and a six-figure death toll from the virus he has let grind the nation to a halt.
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