Trump kicks off his re-election bid in Florida this week, but the insurgent is now the incumbent. Will his time as president change his strategy?
When Donald Trump launches his presidential re-election campaign this week, he will do it at a rally in the Amway Center – home to sports teams Orlando Magic, Orlando Solar Bears and Orlando Predators – in a part of Florida better known for Cape Canaveral and Walt Disney World.
It will be four years and two days since the property developer and reality TV star descended an escalator at Trump Tower in New York to launch the longest of long-shot campaigns by raging against unfair trade deals and promising to “build a great wall” on the US-Mexico border.
He was dismissed. He was scorned. He was laughed at. But he had the last laugh. To the astonishment and consternation of the establishment, Trump went on to offer the ultimate proof that in America, anyone can be president. He beat 16 fellow Republicans, then Democrat Hillary Clinton, to become the first person to reach the Oval Office with no political or military experience.
Now he has to hope that lightning can strike twice. On Tuesday 18 June, Trump, accompanied by the first lady, Melania Trump, the vice-president, Mike Pence and the second lady, Karen Pence, will hold a Make America Great Again rally in Orlando, Florida, a state that is home to his Mar-a-Lago resort and is usually a pivotal battleground in presidential elections.
This time the insurgent is the incumbent, lacking outsider status or shock value, but boasting all the advantages of incumbency, a vast war chest and buy-in from Republican party mandarins. Will he run a more conventional campaign this time? Will he heed the advice of his well-paid advisers? Has the presidency changed him at all?
“Hell no!” said Michael Steele, former chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC). “I remember doing an interview the week of the inaugural and I said my assessment going into this new administration hinges on the answer to a question: will Donald Trump be changed by the presidency or will he change the presidency itself? And the answer is very clear at this point. He has fundamentally changed the presidency of the United States and it will take a man or woman of incredible character to restore it.”
Trump’s 2020 strategy
Back in 2016, which here in Washington feels like millennia ago, Trump ran as a celebrity businessman who glorified in trashing norms and expertise, hurling vulgar insults and sticking two fingers up to the political elite. In 2020, he will run as a celebrity businessman who glorifies in trashing norms and expertise, hurling vulgar insults and flipping off the political elite.
Once a blur on the horizon, the outlines of his next campaign are coming into sharp focus. He has laid out his strategy for re-election in his tweets, his interviews, his speeches and his presidency thus far. It will probably be a rerun of 2016, throwing red meat to red states in a series of high-octane rallies and Fox News interviews that lean in to America’s toxic tribalism.
Most conventionally, Trump and his allies will tout the economy. Trump seldom misses an opportunity to talk about stock market highs, growth topping 3% or unemployment hitting the lowest rate in half a century. The White House relishes recycling old comments from Democrat Nancy Pelosi likening Trump’s tax cuts to “Armageddon” or economist Paul Krugman’s prophecy of “global recession, with no end in sight”.
Ronna McDaniel, current chair of the RNC, told Fox News in May: “The case is gonna be the economy, economy, economy, period.”
Trump’s speechwriters are also likely to trumpet his two supreme court appointments, bipartisan criminal justice reform and an “America first” approach to foreign policy that he claims defeated Islamic State and brought the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, to the negotiating table. But in the 2018 midterms, Trump tended to veer off teleprompter and trample on his own message.
He talked less conspicuously about the economy than immigration, whipping up fear of caravans from Central America pouring over the border. The nativist message, with its naked appeals to white nationalism at rallies resounding to chants of “Build the wall!”, seems certain to loom large again. Once again, critics say, Trump will adopt the politics of divide and rule, riling up his base rather than broadening his coalition.
“It’s going to be immigration all the time, scaring people about those brown folks coming across the border,” Steele said. “It’s going to be playing to his nationalistic tendencies because he’s an autocrat at heart and that’s the space he knows and occupies. And he’s reinforced now by an attorney general who also believes apparently in the autocracy of an untouchable president.
“So Trump, having been reinforced from a legal perspective, feels that he probably can go out there and keep swinging at the fences on these very delicate issues like immigration, which are tinged with race and xenophobia, and then in between throw in, ‘Yeah, the economy is doing great’. Because the truth of that, as I think the numbers have borne out, is while the economy is strong and GDP is great, most people aren’t necessarily realising the benefit.”
Progressive groups are braced for the onslaught. Maurice Weeks, co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy, said: “I expect a lot more talk about the wall. I expect a lot more talk about Muslims. I expect a lot more outwardly racist, sexist and homophobic things and that really won’t be a break from anything that’s happened since before he was elected up until now. I think that he’s just going to keep hammering on these things that have maintained his level of support at this scarily high level.”
Weeks added: “He’s never said this meme that we’ve heard from presidents, like after you get elected you’re going to reach across and heal the nation by bringing them together. That’s just not his game.”
Lessons from 2016
Trump’s first campaign thrived as much on what it was against as what it was for. He lambasted the political and media elites and, towards the end of the campaign, kept promising to “drain the swamp”. But enemy No 1 was his opponent, Clinton, whom he branded “Crooked Hillary” as he spoke endlessly about her emails amid chants of “Lock her up!” In 2020, Clinton will not be on the ballot.
Trump already has new ammunition, however. He has been quick to seize on the ascent of self-declared democratic socialists such as the 2020 Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and millennial New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Democrats’ willingness to contemplate policies such as Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.
Whoever ultimately wins the Democratic nomination, expect to hear a reprise of Trump’s applause line at his 2019 State of the Union address: “We renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”
Erin Perrine, deputy communications director of the Trump 2020 campaign, said: “Democrats are, by their own admission, embracing socialism. Whoever comes out of the primary, they’re going to be broken, they’re going to be beaten up, they’re going to be saddled with all these policies.”
The red scare tactic was used against Barack Obama in the 2008 election after he suggested that “when you spread the wealth around,it’s good for everybody”, but to little effect. It may gain more traction if Democrats do not choose a centrist as their nominee. John Zogby, a pollster and author, said: “The socialism argument will try to go beyond his base to voters over 65 who do not like his behaviour but remember the cold war and worry the Democratic party may have moved too far left.”
If past is prologue, Trump will also traffic in falsehoods to win, portraying Democrats as favouring “open borders” and – to cement the crucial support of Christian evangelicals – as promoting late-term abortions and even “infanticide”.
He will try to turn the special counsel’s Russia investigation on its head, characterising it as a deep state “coup” intended to thwart the forgotten men and women of America and urging: “Investigate the investigators!” Although he holds the most powerful office in the world, he will revel in grievance and victimhood.
Resources and Russia
Whereas his 2016 campaign had an improvisational let’s-do-the-show-right-here quality, this time it will be a formidable machine that can build a database of supporters and donors. It has already raised more than $100m and hired about 40 staff led by Brad Parscale, a digital guru promising it will “bigger, better and badder” by “every single metric”.
Perrine said: “In 2016, they were building the plane in play but they also managed to land the plane; they did a fantastic job. This will be a campaign befitting an incumbent president. We’re going to have a massive ground game.”
Analysts agree the effort will be professionalised. Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington, said: “It’s not going to be a mom-and-pop campaign like it was in 2016. Tactically, they’ll be much more sophisticated because he’s the incumbent. They will be better staffed with much more resources. He may go off script any time at a rally but the TV ads will be better produced.”
Most infamously, the 2016 election was scarred by the Trump team’s willingness to accept help from Russia, although the special counsel’s report did not identify a criminal conspiracy, despite not entirely exonerating Trump. Could it happen again?
Olsen said: “I think after what everyone’s been through over the last three years, you’d have to be a complete idiot to go for something that foreigners provided. They say once bitten, twice shy. Many people have been scorched and scorched again by this, and they don’t want to have third degree burns.”
But whatever guardrails are put in place, the great unknown is the candidate – capricious, mercurial, sometimes unhinged and always unconventional. Most presidents with his economic numbers would be polling much higher, but Trump’s approval rating has remained stubbornly well below 50%.
Rick Tyler, a political analyst and former spokesman for Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign, said: “The campaign strategy should be, are you better off today than you were four years ago because, for many Americans, the answer would be yes. That’s what I would run on, but this president is incapable of doing that.
“So far, he’s the victim and everyone’s out to get to him and I don’t know why that would appeal to voters. He has no message discipline, he’s incapable of articulating a vision and his behaviour is obnoxious. All the economic trends point to him winning but he defies convention and I really am sceptical about his ability to cash in.”
Can Trump cash in?
Trump’s tenure in the Oval Office – where chiefs of staff, communications directors and others have come and gone with head-spinning speed – shows he is unlikely to listen to advice from his strategists. Tyler observed: “It bores him. There’s no fight there. He’s wired to fight. He’s got to pick a fight.”
But while the 45th president is notoriously hard to tame, his campaign is likely to remain tightly controlled, hoping to steer him to victory despite himself. Even Trump will not be able to control every ad and social media post going out on his behalf.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said: “The slogan they will try to sell is ‘You’ve never had it so good’. The campaign surrogates will concede he is obstreperous, outlandish and not a very nice person, and you may not love him, but you love his policies. They’ll make the case that he’s an asshole, but he’s your asshole.”
Like Steele, Sabato does not believe the presidency has changed Trump. “He’s just as obnoxious as when he was elected. In some ways he’s worse because he now has power. He’s not got any better. He hasn’t reached out in any way; we’ve never had a president like that. Every other president has tried to unite the country but he’s a divider, not a uniter.”
Days after Trump’s election, Obama warned “this office has a way of waking you up” and “reality has a way of asserting itself”. But not with Trump. Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, said: “He’s more self-aggrandising than he has ever been before and he’s gotten away with more,” she said. “But like many other presidents, he has become very focused on winning re-election. He’s not on the golf course as much as in the first year. That’s the only way in which he has changed.”
Some Democrats believe that Trump fluked his way to victory in 2016, losing the popular vote but prevailing in the electoral college based on 77,000 votes across three states, and will not be able to pull off the same trick twice. Bob Shrum, a veteran consultant on several presidential elections, said: “If it’s a rerun of 2016, he will certainly lose because it’s impossible to draw an inside straight twice in those three states, yet he shows no sign of broadening his appeal at all.”
Shrum, a political science professor at the University of Southern California, does think the office of the presidency has altered Trump. “It’s made him worse.
“We have a government undermining the law. It’s dangerous in the sense that he worries about what would happen to him and his family if he doesn’t get re-elected, so he’ll do anything.”
Indeed, in 2016 Trump made great play of claiming the game was rigged against him, laying the groundwork so that if he lost, he could cry foul and claim the result would be illegitimate. It is a playbook he may well reach for again, especially if foreign powers seek to interfere. Trump’s spurious claim of “total exoneration” in the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, and ongoing refusal to condemn Russia for its meddling, is an ominous sign.
Steele, the former RNC chairman, said: “Be afraid, be very afraid, be worried, be very worried, because here again the president has literally gotten away with allowing a foreign government to interfere in our election and his silence – and in some cases standing right next to [Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin] and pretty much putting his arm around saying I believe him over everybody else who has incontrovertible evidence – we should be very worried.
“So 2020 is probably the most unsafe election in our history. We haven’t even begun to seriously drill down on the depths of this … But unfortunately right now we don’t have the leadership in our government that is saying that nor taking steps to to do something about it.”