In 2016, no one had any sort of idea of what Donald Trump’s message really was. The immigration talk was a big part of the campaign, but when it came down to it, Trump won a great deal more votes from people terrified of a Hillary Clinton presidency than a Trump one.
But Trump isn’t the guy running against the current system and the way things are anymore. Right now, Trump is the system.
The biggest problem Trump is facing right now is that people expect an incumbent President to have a message. Up until the COVID-19 crisis, he had one, but as that crisis dragged on and on, it was harder and harder for him to stay focused. One of his most important traits going into the pandemic was his ability to shift the conversation in the media to whatever he wanted it to be. But when that particular news cycle dragged on and on, he couldn’t do that anymore.
Then came the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests. And with those protests came riots and violence. All of a sudden, major American cities were literally burning. Someone who has the ability to be a uniter might have been able to handle the issue. That is simply not who Trump is, though, and at a time when the American people are looking for leadership, it’s not that they are getting a bad message from the President, but that they’re getting too many messages all at once.
In the last week or so, a protest was cleared out for Trump to be able to hold up a Bible in front of an Episcopalian church. On Twitter, the President weighed in on an NFL quarterback’s statements on kneeling during the national anthem; tweeted in all caps about a silent majority; Roger Goodell’s statements on the NFL protests; Joe Biden’s campaign; Law and order (not SVU, though); Mitt Romney marching with protestors; Colin Powell; defunding the police; D.C.’s mayor; whatever has been happening on Fox News; John Hickenlooper; the jobs report; Lisa Murkowski; claiming to have fired Jim Mattis as well as nicknaming him “Mad Dog”; Robert Mueller; John Huber; Chris Cuomo’s ratings; Andrew Cuomo’s state; Dinesh D’Souza’s book; Charlie Kirk’s book; a slew of endorsements; and Antifa.
In 2016, Kellyanne Conway reportedly took the President’s phone (and Twitter access) away at times to keep him disciplined on the messaging. It is high time for that to happen again. Trump’s inability to avoid commenting on any story that applies to him or is a topic he’s discussed before makes him vulnerable to oversaturating the voting public with too many thoughts and messages, and some are at odds with each other.
He has to hone in on two or three messages right now in order to try and stabilize the platform going into November.
The first message has to be the economy. Friday’s jobs report should be something he is pushing nonstop, along with the stock market’s confidence in the economic recovery. The economy is going to be the biggest factor come November, because even if the novel coronavirus does have a second wave, it will not be as harsh as it was the first time and people will be far more hesitant to shut things down than they were this past spring. At the end of the day, people still vote for what is best for their wallets, and having a steady job again and rising wages right after a V-shaped recovery from a pandemic-induced recession will be great for him.
The second message needs to be on criminal justice reform. He has already worked to pass a good criminal justice reform bill and his opponent in November co-wrote the very bill that has led to a lot of the problems in the criminal justice community. Another criminal justice reform bill, perhaps, that targets some of the things that protestors have raised and are also fairly conservative in nature (like targeting unions) will show that he is willing to make these changes while not giving into the more absurd demands of the movement (anyone who claims “defund the police” means anything short of defunding the police is trying to spin it).
The third and final message he should adopt is one that directly reinforces his support of faith communities that were (and largely still are) under attack by progressive activists. He can do a lot right now to re-strengthen his support among evangelicals, a group he has to retain going into the election.
If Trump can stay on these messages, then the rather poor cycles he has had will be overcome fairly quickly. But he has to be disciplined. This is no longer about trying to “drain the swamp” or fight the system. This is about proving his system is right for the country.