Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was a work of virtuoso improvisation: Even though it seemed to be in permanent chaos, with frequent changes of leadership, perpetual gaffes, and a strategy devised on the fly, the Republican managed to defeat the elaborate, best-and-brightest, data-wonk team of Hillary Clinton.
If the early indications hold, it doesn’t look like Trump is going to improvise so much again in 2020. In fact, he’s kicking the campaign off on Saturday, with a rally in Melbourne, Florida:
We’ll do the math for you: That means Trump is hosting his first rally of the 2020 campaign just 29 days into his presidency.
The idea of a “permanent campaign” has been floating around American political circles since 1980, when Sidney Blumenthal used it as the title for a book. It was during the presidency of Bill Clinton, whom Blumenthal advised, that the idea really came into practice. Even by the standards of modern-day presidents, Clinton loved politicking, and his team held on to campaign methods once in the White House, famously calling on polling to help determine its course. Newt Gingrich helped Republicans capture the House in 1994, in part by adopting the same tactics. Each of Clinton’s successors has adopted the permanent-campaign mentality to some degree.
Yet Trump’s choice to hold a campaign rally less than a month into his presidency breaks new ground. Where his predecessors practiced electoral politics between cycles, none was willing to do so as baldly, as quickly, as Trump. Barack Obama realized, like Trump, that he thrived off large audiences, and he made liberal use of the major speech, even early in his term: In February 2009, he made several trips to promote the stimulus package and his agenda. But Obama’s events were political by implication, while outwardly aimed at boosting specific policies.
Trump by contrast is planning a straightforward campaign-style rally on Saturday. It’s at an airport, in a swing state, and it’s being advertised through his campaign website. His press secretary even called it a campaign event. Making the event a campaign event rather than a speech might afford Trump greater flexibility in who he allows to attend and who he excludes. It means that the Trump campaign will likely pick up some of the travel tab, rather than taxpayers. But it might also grant Trump more leeway to make straightforwardly political arguments and attacks that it might be unseemly for a president to make at an official event—though Trump has shown such little regard for those unwritten rules that it’s hard to imagine he could be significantly more strident.
The rally isn’t even the first step the president has taken toward a 2020 campaign. In the days between his election and his inaugural, Trump held a victory lap series of rallies, mimicking the format and even the stump speech (such as it was) that Trump used during the campaign. He also made great show of supposedly selecting, and then asking his lawyer to trademark, a slogan for the 2020 campaign while in the midst of an interview with The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty. (“Keep America Great,” but then you knew that, right?) Trump even filed papers to run for reelection on Inauguration Day.
Trump runs the risk of appearing presumptuous in beginning his campaign at so early a date. After all, shouldn’t one master the art of governing before one begins to campaign for a second tour? The White House is, by all accounts, in a state of chaos. On Monday, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after misleading the vice president and the American people about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. On Wednesday, Trump’s nominee for labor secretary withdrew when it became clear he could not be confirmed. Federal courts have brought Trump’s signature immigration executive order to a halt. Isn’t there enough in Washington for Trump to attend to?
That is, most likely, the point. It’s hard for Trump to find many friends. As fiercely as the media objected to Steve Bannon’s accusation that they represented the “opposition party,” the animosity between press and president is undeniable. Republicans in Congress are increasingly frustrated with the White House’s stumbles, and in some cases is calling for investigations into matters, from Kellyanne Conway’s apparent flouting of ethics rules to the Flynn affair to question of lax security at Mar-a-Lago. More importantly, Trump can say he doesn’t believe the polls until he’s blue in the face, but he is obsessively attentive to them, as he frequently reveals, and his approval rating is miserable—and not just inside the Beltway.
Going to Florida for a big campaign-style rally is a chance to put both the president and his supporters back into a more salubrious state of mind. It’s a way for Trump to try to regain his swagger, but it’s also a bid to enliven the base that brought him to the White House. It’s a test to see whether the “Silent Majority” he boasted during the campaign can give him the energy he needs to govern as a successful president. Time and again during the presidential campaign, returning to his crowds helped Trump get on track. This weekend, he’ll try to figure out whether those campaign tactics can work when they’re made permanent.