For three-and-a-half years, President Donald Trump has been campaigning for re-election.
His go-to tactic was to make sure that, whatever the case, there was always someone to campaign against. A bogeyman, real or imaginary, to set up as the biggest obstacle in his path to Making America Great Again. Even when things were going good — for example, a record-setting economy and a nice tax break for Americans — Trump still had someone to rail against, an enemy on the field.
Then, the coronavirus outbreak came along. For a time, Trump’s approval rating actually started going up. But overexposure and a media hellbent on making Trump (and every Republican governor opening up their state) appear as inept as possible ended up hurting Trump as much as helping him. COVID-19 was the first news cycle that didn’t expire in a couple days max, like other news cycles.
Then came George Floyd.
The death of Floyd, for a brief moment, was a unifying event. There was pretty much no disagreement that the actions of law enforcement in that one viral video went way over the line. And, for a time, peaceful protests started. But then, the rioters came in. Largely white and anarchistic, they have turned the peaceful protests into full-blown chaos, with American cities burning and being looted.
And while Trump can say Antifa this or thugs that, the fact of the matter is that there is no enemy he can put up here that perfectly explains why things are the way they are. Even with COVID-19, he had the Chinese Communist Party. But with all that’s going on right now, there isn’t one particular face or group he can designate as the primary enemy here.
A largely faceless mob that is running rampant while police officers try and fail to maintain order does not help out the “law and order” presidency that Trump promised. It also further deteriorates his relationship with a demographic he so desperately needs at least some support from — suburban women.
Now, obviously, being five months away still means there are plenty of opportunities for things to go right. The economy could come roaring back up pretty quickly, for example. There could be movement on racial justice led by his Department of Justice that gets widespread acclaim. There are many things that could go right for him and alter the course of his presidency.
But right now it simply does not look good.
That is something the White House seems to believe, as well. There are reports of emergency meetings being held to strategize with the President on how to navigate through here. People within his administration appear to believe that his tweets on this crisis do more harm than good, and there is worry among several on the right, privately, that he is unable to really connect on this issue.
Trump has got to find some way to break through here, and not with his usual tactics. Here is a good time to work on more nuanced, rehearsed statements rather than train-of-thought musings from his Twitter account or from behind a microphone. Trump is at his best when he can blend his wit and rehearsed statements, but he is struggling here and it’s showing.
There is the chance, also, that Biden messes this up, as well, and there is always the possibility that the Democrats overplay their hands here. But relying on them to do so is not a strategy. The White House needs to get out ahead of this in a way that they haven’t yet.
And they need to do it soon.