Trump’s Plan to Save His Presidency

As he navigates the political fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, he’s leaning into a strategy that worked for him four years ago.

Jeff J Mitchell / Getty / The Atlantic

Two key forces that drove Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016 were the cult of personality he attracted and a hard-edged nationalist message. There is no sign that his core followers will ever abandon him. But the Ever Trumpers won’t be enough to win him reelection amid a historic crisis that a majority of the country feels he’s bungled. Trump needs to reach some band of the electorate still amenable to voting for him, with some argument these voters might find persuasive. Telling the world he’s blameless night after night doesn’t seem to be working.

As his approval ratings drop, Trump has been leaning into the blunt economic-nationalist argument that helped get him to the White House, betting that it’s compelling enough to keep him there. He now says he would consider punitive action against China, where the virus originated, after spending much of January and February showering praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping. Late Monday night, he tweeted that he would sign an executive order temporarily barring all immigration in an effort to protect people’s health and jobs. That drew headlines (perhaps the point), but the practical impact seems negligible, since the order falls far short of a blanket ban.

When it comes to the president, most people are dug in. They want him gone, or they admire him more than Abraham Lincoln. Tucked into the divide, though, is some small group still open to hearing what he has to say. Republican pollsters say they’ve spotted these voters in their research. Neil Newhouse, who has polled for four different Republican presidential campaigns, told me about a survey his firm conducted last year showing that, of the voters who disapproved of Trump’s job performance, 36 percent said they liked some of his policies and some actions that he took. That’s the prize. They’re the voters Trump can target with an economic-nationalist position that may seem more relevant in the time of COVID-19, Newhouse and other Trump allies told me.

“An issue like this—nationalism—could come into play. They may not like everything he’s doing, but they like the way he’s standing up to China,” Newhouse said. John McLaughlin, a Trump pollster who has also worked for dozens of Republican congressional and presidential candidates over the years, echoed that notion. “There are some that may not like his style, but support his policies, and in particular, his economic-nationalist argument,” he told me. “That’s the persuadable middle. That’s where the votes are.”

Even within this slice of the electorate, though, are some who see Trump’s behavior as so repellent that they can’t get past it. Donald Scoggins is one of them. A self-described moderate Republican from Northern Virginia, he backed Trump in the 2016 Republican primaries for a time and favored Trump’s economic agenda, especially his pledge to bring manufacturing jobs home from overseas. He admires some of what Trump has done in office, especially Trump’s passage of the First Step Act, a criminal-justice-system overhaul that reduced sentences for certain inmates. But it’s not enough to earn his vote. “You’re the best thing since sliced bread if you agree with him,” Scoggins, 74, a retired real-estate broker, told me. “The minute you don’t agree with him, he tends to denigrate you. That’s not an example we want for our youth.”

Nor is a nationalist message certain to sway voters who have lost their jobs or fear that an ill-timed sneeze from somebody standing a few feet away might land them in the hospital. “I don’t know what argument is going to move 10 percent of the voters to Donald Trump,” Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told me, pointing to the bloc of voters who may be undecided. “I don’t know what that economic argument is, unless you’re so mind-numbingly dumb that you believe the Chinese are the culprits behind the fact that you’ve lost 30 percent of your retirement.”

It’s also not clear that China’s culpability is a top-of-mind concern for many Americans. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, told me that in a survey he conducted in battleground states, people ranked what they believed should be the federal government’s priorities in the face of the pandemic. At the top of the list: quashing the virus. At the bottom: holding China accountable for allowing it to spread.

Blaming China to reap a short-term political reward is a dangerous foreign-policy gambit, experts warn. Useful though it might be for Trump’s campaign, the strategy risks inflaming America’s already-troubled relationship with the world’s second-leading economy. An analysis from the consulting firm Eurasia Group this week said that Trump faces “a strong temptation to castigate China as he deflects blame for a rising death toll and economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic, and taps growing anti-China sentiment in the U.S.” The report’s somber verdict: “The U.S.-China relationship is at its lowest point in decades and headed lower.”

Under Trump, there were bound to be strains. Thrumming through his 2016 campaign was an attack on international alliances and free-trade policies that both parties had long embraced. He built his base partly through the nationalist position that China, in particular, had fleeced the U.S. through trade practices that benefited “elites” at the expense of American workers. Trump’s vow to rework trade relations was a populist argument that tapped into deep-seated resentments. It appealed to Republican supporters who view trade not so much as a win-win proposition, but “as a means to dominate—as a way to beat the Chinese and these other countries and get the upper hand,” says Diana Mutz, a University of Pennsylvania political-science professor and the author of the forthcoming Winners and Losers: The Psychology of Foreign Trade.

When Trump entered office, he brought with him a clutch of aides who symbolized both sides of the ideological split. Gary Cohn, a former president of Goldman Sachs, was Trump’s top economic adviser and an avatar of globalism, while Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, represented the economic-nationalist wing. After successive purges and unending staff turnover—including the departures of Bannon and Cohn—it’s hard to say that either side now has the upper hand, or that labels even matter anymore. Trump’s presidency has devolved into ad hoc responses to rolling crises, with seemingly little in the way of a thematic message or worldview guiding what he says or does.

One economic nationalist remaining is trade adviser and China hawk Peter Navarro. In February, Navarro told me that China’s handling of the virus was a “signal failure.” In a more recent interview on Fox News, he accused China of covering up details of the outbreak and hoarding lifesaving protective medical supplies.

At early points in the outbreak, Trump described Xi in sympathetic and supportive terms, but lately he has taken a more accusatory tone. The disease, he said at one of his news conferences last week, “could have been stopped in China, before it started, and it wasn’t. And the whole world is suffering because of it.”

A senior Trump-administration official told me that before, the president was being careful not to offend an important negotiating partner. “Do you say nice things about folks when they’re doing deals with you? Sure, why not?” said the official, who, like others I talked with for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be more candid. I asked about the darker view Trump now puts out. “Well, things have gotten a lot worse, haven’t they?” the official said.

Bannon—who, like Navarro, has focused on China’s role in the virus’s spread—now has a different platform, a daily podcast-and-radio show that he devotes to the pandemic. Broadcasting from a townhouse on Capitol Hill, Bannon since January has called the coronavirus a historic catastrophe, one that threatens to wipe out the pensions of American workers and devastate small businesses that were “the backbone of the Trump movement.” “When these markets go down, remember, the principal owners of these stocks are the pension funds … of the hardworking ‘deplorables,’” he said in a March 19 episode, invoking Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Trump’s supporters.

Inside the administration, the scope of Bannon’s influence isn’t clear, but one Trump confidant said he speaks with Bannon and values his judgment on the crisis. “Steve’s got a voice,” Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, told me. “I talk to him and have found him to be a real smart guy in this and a good source.”

As people continue to fall ill, the nationalist argument may be the most viable one left. It’s possible that too many people have died and too many jobs have been lost for Trump to credibly make the case that he minimized the wreckage. And so he needs to divert attention to China’s role. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 51 percent of respondents did not believe the federal government had provided Americans with sufficient “reassurance and direction.” Only 36 percent said they trusted what Trump has to say about the pandemic, compared with 66 percent who took the word of their governors.

Some Republicans are getting impatient. “I’d like him to not be focused on his own personal brand and vendettas,” a Republican Senate aide told me. “There’s an opportunity for him to talk more about global economic policy, and it lines up well with what he said on the [2016] campaign. Most people look at China and they don’t like it, because it seems like jobs here are being taken away and everything has moved abroad. China is the poster child of that.”

One Trump ally is rolling out more ambitious plans to stop the economic tailspin. Senator Josh Hawley, a freshman Republican from Missouri, wants to see new federal spending to keep workers employed through the ordeal. His plan also calls for profitable companies to maintain a “financial cushion” that would help them weather such crises in the future. “We seem to be on a roller-coaster that is currently plunging down,” Hawley told Politico. “I personally do not want to ride that roller-coaster and find where the bottom is. And I don’t think American workers should be forced to.”

That a Republican senator would come out with a proposal more far-reaching than anything the White House has put forward underscores both the deep worry inside the Republican caucus and a policy vacuum that Trump has left others to fill. “On substantive plans, there’s been a hole from the White House,” Doug Heye, a former spokesperson for the RNC, told me. “Hawley is thinking big thoughts about these things—not just pushing back on China.”

In the end, the election may hinge on people’s mood. If in the fall voters are still despondent about the economy and worried for their safety, Trump’s decline may be irreversible. But there’s another scenario. What happens if scientists come up with effective therapeutic drugs, and the public-health threat subsides? Then, allies believe, he could beat Joe Biden by corralling that sliver of voters who dislike him but are still so rattled by the pandemic that they’ve come around to an economic-nationalist message that demonizes China. “If people are hopeful that things are going to improve—and people are pissed at China—the president is going to win by a lot,” one Republican close to Trump’s campaign told me. Plenty of hypotheticals are packed into that analysis, though—the biggest being that voters won’t blame Trump for the lives lost while the virus raged.