Is Trump's Campaign Act Wearing Thin?

The more his presidency stalls, the more he turns to his old tricks. But there are signs those worn tactics are losing their power.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Usually, the first 100 days of an administration are when a president starts to figure out the job and feel at home. Sometimes, he accomplishes much during that period; other opening stretches are more vexed, but by the end a commander in chief has begun to inhabit his office.

Something funny is happening with President Trump, though: Over the last week or two, he has instead appeared to return to many of the habits he developed on the campaign trail. That includes another campaign-style rally on Saturday, a sudden gusher of sit-down interviews, and an even more improvisatory approach than usual. These returns to habit correspond with, and seem to follow, the president’s ongoing inability to achieve much with the presidency.

Trump has held several “campaign” rallies since his inauguration, including one in February in Florida. Saturday’s was a classic of the form. It began with a sustained broadside against the media.

“The Washington media is part of the problem,” he said in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “Their priorities are not my priorities, and they are not your priorities, believe me. Their agenda is not your agenda.”

Most of what he said was either a direct echo of his stump speeches or of a piece with it. There were the sustained complaints about the media; the “lock her up” chants, about an opponent Trump dispatched nearly six months ago; a recitation of campaign favorite “The Snake”; protester interruptions and ejections; and a dubious claim of record attendance. The new elements of the speech, which focused on his presidency, were delivered with the same sense of grievance that Trump brought on the trail—only now he is the president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world.

Meanwhile, Trump seems to be everywhere. Starting in late July 2016, Trump—until then the most press-accessible candidate in recent history—pulled back dramatically from the media, putting a stop to press conferences, and largely ceased giving interviews to all but assuredly friendly questioners. For the most part, he continued that approach even into the presidency, although he occasionally betrayed his continued interest in the mainstream press—as when, upon the collapse of the GOP health-care plan, he immediately called Robert Costa of The Washington Post and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times.

Recently, however, Trump is everywhere. He’s given interviews to (among others) the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Politico, CBS News, and Salena Zito (in both print and on the radio). The contents of the interviews has been campaign-vintage Trump, with the president improvising on the spot and refusing to offer specifics. Several of the exchanges have been rough: Trump abruptly cut off a discussion with CBS’s John Dickerson when Dickerson challenged his wholly unsubstantiated claims that Barack Obama “wiretapped” him, and in a discussion of the current Republican health-care plan, Trump seemed unaware of what the legislation would do.

The shift came as Trump neared his 100 day mark and, it seems, realized that he had almost nothing to show for his first three months on the job, with the notable exception of a confirmed Supreme Court justice. No matter what Trump says, the tally is clear enough, and he himself set the bar for success back in October.

It’s unsurprising that Trump would wish to return to the campaign—not yet constrained by office, he was free to say and do more or less as he chose, and it culminated in the great moment of his life: his election as president of the United States. Things haven’t gotten quite so well since. His approval rating has tanked, he has spoken frankly in interviews about how unexpectedly hard the job turns out to be, and how little has has to show for it.

Trump’s problem is that he faces a vicious cycle: The more his presidency feels stalled, the more he reverts to his campaign mode. And the more he reverts to campaign mode, the less influence and attention he seems able to garner.

Reviews for Trump’s Saturday speech were not great. “This was the most divisive speech I have ever heard from a sitting American president,” said David Gergen. “Others may disagree about that. He played to his base and he treated his other listeners, the rest of the people who have been disturbed about him or opposed him, he treated them basically as, ‘I don't give a damn what you think because you're frankly like the enemy.’ I thought it was a deeply disturbing speech.” That’s notable condemnation, especially from a man who, as a speechwriter to Richard Nixon, attended “attack meetings” in the White House.

But Gergen’s voice was unusual, not in that he condemned the speech, but in that he bothered to give it any attention at all. Trump’s old-style stemwinders no longer attract the same kind of attention they once did, because no matter how outlandish and provocative one’s headgear is—even a red MAGA cap—it will eventually become old hat.

Perhaps it’s unwise to put too much weight on the Saturday rally. After all, as Trump was eager to point out, many of the stars in the Washington journalistic firmament were otherwise engaged at the White House Correspondents Dinner that evening, keeping them from Harrisburg.

There are other data points, though. The AP examined the president’s Twitter feed and found people are tiring of that as well:

The number of people engaging with Trump on Twitter—through likes, retweets, quotes and replies—has gradually declined, according to an Associated Press analysis of his feed and the users who read, react and propel his words throughout the Twittersphere….

Before his 50th day in office, a little over 32 percent of his tweets averaged around 60,000 engagements including retweets, replies, and quote tweets. But after day 50, no day has reached that level of engagement. Before then, 60 percent of the days' tweets got over 50,000 engagements. After, only 3 have—9 percent.

Meanwhile, only 36 percent of respondents in a Fox News poll in late April said they’d vote to reelect Trump—against 55 percent who said they wouldn’t, including 47 who “definitely” would not.

However slowly Trump is adapting to some aspects of the presidency, he would be prodigiously fast if people really are starting to tune him out. Usually it takes a president until deep into his second term to become irrelevant. It’s easy to see why people might become numb to Trump news. He’s been the largest news story in the nation almost continuously since June 2015, an unusually long stretch. There’s a limit to how many stories about unusual, bizarre claims anyone can make before the novelty begins to wear off.

Take health care: After its collapse in March, Trump announced he was moving on to overhauling the tax system. Since then, the House GOP is on at least its second White House-induced attempt to resuscitate the health bill. Meanwhile, the tax plan that Trump produced last week, if it can really be called a plan, is very similar to the vague outline Trump offered on the campaign trail—but with barely any added detail.

Now, when the president announces he’s “looking at” breaking up big banks and increasing the gas tax, or when he claims he’s going to have a $1 trillion infrastructure package ready in a fortnight, no one even bothers to reply. (Well, almost no one.) Because so much that Trump says has turned out to be empty rhetoric, the default is fast becoming to assume new statements are also empty unless proven otherwise. (Trump does still have the capacity to shock, as his Civil War history shows, but these moments are becoming less potent.)

The electorate becoming numb to what the president says is probably not a good thing for democracy—or for traffic at your favorite journalism outlets!—but it’s also very bad for Trump, who thrives and depends on being able to attract and direct attention. “If people don’t associate my name with quality and success, I’ve got serious problems,” he once wrote.

That’s the bind he’s in now, and he’s responded to it by returning to the tactics he employed on the campaign trail. That may not be the panacea he hopes. Before Trump drew back from the media in late July, his campaign was a chaotic mess. In the months after withdrawing, he became a more disciplined campaigner, taking a candidacy destined for catastrophic collapse and turning it into a winner. Even if Trump believes a return to his campaign tactics of press saturation is a winner, it could instead exacerbate his problems.