The Huge Snag in Trump’s Reelection Pitch

The president’s own volatility complicates his effort to convince Americans that he can stabilize their lives.

Getty / The Atlantic

Donald Trump is betting his reelection on convincing most Americans that the “chaos president” can deliver order.

“Chaos president” is how former Florida Governor Jeb Bush described Trump in the final Republican presidential-primary debate of 2015. Bush’s argument against Trump’s erratic leadership style didn’t save his flagging campaign, but his coinage may have been the single most accurate forecast of Trump’s turbulent tenure. Trump’s presidency has been marked by constant turnover in personnel, hairpin turns in policy, angry feuds with politicians in both parties, perpetual Twitter wars, the disregard and disparaging of experts, a torrent of lies and misrepresentations, and the most open appeals to white racial resentment of any other national figure since George Wallace.

All that history looms over Trump as the coronavirus pandemic, the accompanying economic collapse, and nationwide protests and unrest over racial inequity have left millions of Americans uneasy. Trump is trying to overcome Joe Biden’s consistent lead in the polls by presenting himself as the leader to restore calm to the streets and normalcy to the economy. But the volatility that has infused each day of his presidency hugely complicates his effort to convince Americans that he can stabilize their lives.

“These are problems that are not friendly to Trump’s management style,” says Donald Kettl, a federal-management expert at the University of Texas at Austin. When it comes to both the virus and the unrest, “the great risk is that he could increasingly lose control of the definition of the problem, seem increasingly out of synch on the solutions, and fail to develop confidence he knows where it is he wants to go.”

The biggest problem with Trump running on restoring order is that his performance in office has caused many voters to view him as the candidate of disorder. In a Yahoo/YouGov national survey conducted immediately after the Republican National Convention last week, only 30 percent of registered voters said they believe that Trump “will protect us from the chaos”; fully 50 percent described him as the “source of the chaos.”

One major reason for that verdict: Trump has not adjusted his combative and impulsive leadership style to respond to the twin crises roiling the nation. That chaotic approach always alienated some voters, but its consequences have become more tangible and visceral when applied to both the outbreak and the protests.

“Trump’s great success has been to define big problems as political symbols,” Kettl told me. “But the problem with the virus is portraying it as a political symbol runs afoul of people lying in intensive-care units. You can’t just portray it as a symbol when there is a ferocious reality staring people in the face … The same is true on the economy, and the same is true on the issue of race.”

Trump has worked to fit these challenges into his preexisting framework of conservative populism, which targets “elites” and racial minorities. He’s long framed the outbreak as a kind of culture war by disparaging expert advice; attacking state and local Democratic officials (especially when the outbreak was mainly in blue states); supporting protesters, some of them carrying Confederate flags and automatic weapons, who have demanded that Democratic governors end lockdowns; and signaling disdain for mask wearing and social distancing meant to slow the disease’s spread. This campaign reached its apogee at last week’s RNC, when speakers repeatedly talked about the outbreak in the past tense—even as about 6,000 Americans died during the week that the proceedings unfolded—and Trump capped the gathering with a huge, crowded in-person rally on the White House’s South Lawn.

“The biggest problem Trump has is that voters are tired of hearing from him, especially when he said everything is fine on coronavirus,” says one GOP pollster, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity to discuss the race’s dynamics. “It’s not ... [The pandemic is] interfering, in his mind, with his economy, that he built, and so he’s got to downplay it. He is a developer, so his reaction is to promise everything. If people see a problem, say, ‘Oh no, that’s not a problem—it’s going to go down to zero.’ This is just how he deals with stuff. It could end up costing him the White House.”

On the civil unrest, after some initial expressions of concern about police misconduct immediately following George Floyd’s killing, Trump has turned almost entirely toward confrontation with the protest movement. He has derided Black Lives Matter demonstrators and local Democratic officials with inflammatory accusations and has downplayed concerns about police shootings. In an interview with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham this week, he even likened police who shoot Black men to golfers who “choke” on a short putt. At the same time, he’s repeatedly refused to condemn vigilante violence from his own supporters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon—a choice that extremism experts say amounts to an open invitation for more of it.

“Absolutely he has legitimized it at this point,” says Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary for threat prevention at Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, who has endorsed Biden. “I have to think that, yes, we’re probably going to see more of that.”

Trump’s relentless attacks against Black Lives Matter protesters the past few weeks have unnerved many Democrats, who fear he could peel away some older and blue-collar white voters now tilting toward Biden. Although most national polls released since the GOP convention still show Biden holding a substantial lead, a Monmouth University survey showing a tighter race in the crucial battleground state of Pennsylvania sent shivers through anxious Democrats yesterday.

Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party and the founder of The Iowa Republican, an online publication, says he believes that Trump’s warnings about unrest are resonating, even in a state that has seen little of it. “I think in being the ‘law and order’ candidate, there are more advantages than in trying to carve out this nuanced position” between the protesters and the police.

Yet it’s far from clear that Trump can persuade Americans to focus on just one source of this year’s disorder—police killings and the subsequent protests—rather the other big disruptor of American life, the pandemic. Citizens experience the street protests mostly on television, whereas the coronavirus and economic crises have unsettled people’s daily lives much more intimately.

“For 99.99 percent of Americans, [civil unrest] is not a problem in their life,” says Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and an adviser to the Lincoln Project, a group of Republicans who oppose Trump. “I just think that what’s going on in your living room is going to be more vital to you than what is [happening on] television in some distant city.”

In the Yahoo/YouGov national poll, just 7 percent of registered voters said they were very worried that violence would break out in their community; almost two-thirds said they were not worried much, or at all. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll released yesterday, more than three-fifths of registered voters said crime was not increasing in their community.

And even if Trump shifts more Americans’ focus from the pandemic to the protests, it’s uncertain that enough voters will believe he’s better suited than Biden to address them. That’s a key difference from Richard Nixon, whose 1968 law-and-order campaign has inspired Trump’s offensive this summer. Although most Americans may have believed that Nixon could deliver order, many now say that Trump’s confrontational approach on racial issues increases the risk of violence. In the Yahoo/YouGov poll, a solid 56 percent of registered voters said they expected more violence if Trump is reelected, while only 24 percent anticipated less. In a national Quinnipiac University poll released yesterday, a 50 percent majority of Americans said that having Trump as president makes them feel less safe, rather than more. “He’s highlighted the issue ... but it is quite plausible that it doesn’t break for him, because he doesn’t have an answer to this that brings more stability,” the Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg told me.

Most Democrats I’ve spoken with are confident that Trump’s iron-fist response to civil unrest is misreading the public mood: In their view, most Americans want to calm dissent, not crush it. Matt McDermott, a Democratic pollster, notes that although most Americans have positive perceptions of the police, a significant majority also agree that law-enforcement bias against Black Americans is a serious problem. “The voting population is saying that there is something wrong here and something needs to be done to address it,” he says. Although surveys do show growing concern about violence at protests, and several point to eroding white support for the Black Lives Matter movement, recent polling by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute still found that 56 percent of Americans consider police shootings of Black men part of a pattern—a huge change from 2015, when a majority described them as isolated incidents.

But as he has on so many other issues, Trump is campaigning in blunt, culture-war terms, framing only the protests as the problem. Neumann says that Trump’s approach of drawing bright lines between allies and enemies virtually ensures an extended cycle of confrontation over racial inequity. The continuing conflict, she says, is partly “because of the president’s inability to facilitate the kind of conversation that’s necessary to address the very real issue that came up after the murder of George Floyd: that we have a serious problem of racial injustice in our country, particularly within policing.

“That requires leadership at the top saying, ‘Calm down and listen to somebody else’s perspective,’” Neumann continues. “He does the opposite, creating fear and [suggesting that] you better go protect yourself because your mayor is not going to do it.”

Over nearly four years, Trump has demonstrated that there is a stable and substantial audience for that approach, especially within his core constituencies of non-college-educated, evangelical, and rural white voters uneasy with the demographic changes remaking America. Political strategists in both parties whom I’ve spoken with believe that Trump’s tough line on the protests and his dismissive attitude toward the coronavirus are aimed less at persuading ambivalent voters than inspiring more of the nonvoters in his core groups to flood the polls in November. “Everything he’s done is about mining that one vein,” says Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff for Barack Obama.

Yet the polarizing leadership style that thrills Trump’s core voters on other issues may carry a heavier cost for him on the virus and nationwide protests. The last circle of voters who stand between Trump and a second term may not be the Americans who are offended by his ideology, but those who are simply exhausted by the chaos surrounding his presidency, particularly in regard to these two titanic challenges. “I think people don’t want racial unrest in the streets and they don’t want COVID,” Robinson says. “They just want to get to 2021 and hope that things are better.”