During times of war and strife, national leaders often aim to unite a broken country and, in the process, broaden their appeal beyond their most loyal supporters. Not President Donald Trump.
Confronting a pandemic that has upended his presidency and threatened his reelection prospects, Trump has focused almost exclusively on tending to his base, attacking the press and deferring responsibility.
On Monday Trump leveled multiple attacks at the media on Twitter, writing: “FAKE NEWS, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” and “There has never been, in the history of our Country, a more vicious or hostile Lamestream Media than there is right now.”
These attacks came after blowback for a series of tweets Trump deleted in which he demanded that journalists who won “Noble Prizes” for their reporting on “Russia, Russia, Russia” be forced to give them back to the “Noble Committee.”
After a round of mockery for misspelling the Nobel Prize, which he appeared to confuse with the Pulitzer Prize, Trump deleted the tweets and claimed, yet again, he was being “sarcastic.”
Trump wrote, “Does anybody get the meaning of what a so-called Noble (not Nobel) Prize is, especially as it pertains to Reporters and Journalists? Noble is defined as, ‘having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles and ideals.’ Does sarcasm ever work?”
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Trump employed the same “sarcasm” defense just 48 hours ago, when he claimed his musings about possibly curing coronavirus by injecting disinfectants and sunlight were just sarcasm.
While the coronavirus has claimed the lives of more than 54,000 Americans, eliminated more than 20 million jobs and dashed the routines of daily life for nearly everyone, Trump has leveled attacks on Democrats. He’s blamed former President Barack Obama’s team for his own administration’s failures, picked fights with reporters and thrown rhetorical bombs meant to thrill his hardcore supporters.
During a particularly rough stretch last week, Trump pledged to bar foreigners from entering the country. The executive order Trump ultimately signed was less severe than he suggested, but it still gave him a chance to highlight action on an issue that’s central to his political brand.
Four years after Trump captured the White House by perfectly threading narrow victories in critical battleground states, he is betting that a relentless focus on his base will yield a repeat performance. It’s a risky strategy because Trump’s standing in some of those states shows signs of weakening. And there’s little evidence to suggest he has significantly broadened his appeal in other places to offset those vulnerabilities.
The pandemic hasn’t changed that.
“It drives me crazy, frankly, because part of being the president is to rise above, to ignore certain things,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, whose lukewarm approval ratings soared after his handling of the Sept. 11 attacks. “And I think at a time like this he should leave a lot of the gauntlets on the ground and rise above. But that’s not him.”
Fleischer said that, while the virus puts limits on the president’s ability to travel and the political environment is far more polarized today than it was in the early 2000s, Trump’s White House could be appealing to the country as a whole with events honoring doctors, nurses and front-line workers that “send helpful, meaningful signals that we are one nation and we can play a meaningful part.”
Other modern presidents have looked to transcend partisan boundaries at a time of crisis or tragedy, including Bill Clinton in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, Ronald Reagan after the Challenger space shuttle explosion and Lyndon Johnson after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
“I’m surprised the administration isn’t doing this as well,” Fleischer said.
Other Republicans, however, believe Trump is playing it right. Stephen Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, believes 2020 is a “base election” year and thinks Trump can broaden his support because of a “new nationalism” born in the wake of a pandemic that began in China. He predicted Americans would rally around their president during a period of crisis.