As you’d expect from any president with a mediocre job-approval rating, Donald Trump has been working to keep his reelection bid from becoming a referendum election based on judgments about his record. Instead, he hopes to make 2020 a comparative election by promoting fears about the opposition. The coronavirus pandemic has obviously complicated this effort by creating the sort of horrific living conditions that are fundamentally incompatible with any upbeat reelection message. “You never had it so good eight months ago” isn’t a very compelling slogan, even if you buy the premise that the pre-pandemic economy was near ideal and that Trump was responsible for producing it.
But that may be the underlying idea of Trump’s reelection pitch, as an AP report suggests:
Aiming to energize his base less than six months before he stands for reelection, the president has drawn a cultural link between the disaffected who voted for him four years ago and those who want to quickly restart the nation’s economy. Amplified by conservative media commentators, Trump has leaned into the pandemic’s partisan divide and urged states to reopen regardless of whether they meet the benchmarks set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“They want to get out there, and they want to get back,” Trump said recently of those agitating to restart the nation’s economy. “That’s what they want. They want their country back, and they’re getting it back.”
If that sounds a lot like Trump’s 2016 rhetoric, it’s no mistake. Since the pandemic and its economic effects have ruined his presidency, he’s able to put himself right out there with the “reopening” activists as someone fighting government on behalf of the “forgotten Americans,” notably small business owners and white wage earners in areas with relatively low COVID-19 infection rates. Yes, he’s running as an “outsider” again, which, if effective, is the best way to avoid a referendum election. And it helps that his opponent has been regularly employed at high levels of the federal government since 1973.
Beyond the ability to attack government even as he sits at the apex of government in this country, the coronavirus has given Trump an easily communicated and self-validating rationale for a second term: He deserves the chance to finish the “swamp cleaning” job he was sent to Washington to perform, and to re-create the economic conditions that prevailed when the pandemic broke out. His remarkably consistent efforts to blame others (notably China, immigrants, and globalists) for the coronavirus, and uncooperative state and local governments for its economic impact, reinforce a sort of POTUS Interruptus case that he’s entitled to overtime extending into a second term.
Earlier this week, the president’s son Eric offered a more demented take on this Trumpian grievance over COVID-19, as my colleague Matt Steib observed earlier this week:
Speaking with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, Eric Trump said that Democrats were using shutdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19 as an attempt to take away “Donald Trump’s greatest tool, which is being able to go into an arena and fill it with 50,000 people every single time. You watch, they’ll milk it every single day between now and November 3. And guess what, after November 3, coronavirus will magically all of a sudden go away and disappear and everybody will be able to reopen.”
The idea that COVID-19 — engineered by China and made worse by Democrats — has sabotaged the most successful presidency since George Washington’s seems to be at the core of everything Trump has been saying lately. So he cannot possibly be held accountable for any of the suffering Americans are experiencing. After all, he’s suffering too, and is mourning for “his” lost economic boom. And he’s fighting the same smug elites that are telling Americans to wear masks and keep their businesses and churches closed and just suck it up until they’re told they can have their country back.
It’s an audacious message if he sticks to it, but one that has the advantage of letting Trump run on a portion of his record while attributing the more recent disasters to the same old enemies he’s been fighting for so long. Just as important, a reelection message based essentially on a whine is consistent with everything we know about this man and the core base of voters who share his resentments.