Trump Doesn’t Know How to Campaign As an Incumbent

The president was never a political mastermind. His 2016 election was a fluke that won’t be repeated.

Looking through Ryan Lizza and Daniel Lippman’s piece on Donald Trump’s campaign in Politico, I was struck by how widespread the impression is that the president employed “a bag of tricks” to get elected in 2016. There are a lot of people who seem to believe that Trump’s sagging polls indicate that he’s like a children’s birthday party magician who is now being asked to work a college fraternity.

I suppose there’s something to this comparison. In serious times, some jokes seem frivolous or insensitive. And every performer needs fresh material if they want to avoid boring the audience. But my favorite characterization of Trump’s 2016 success comes from “a senior GOP congressional aide”:

“It used to be that he would do five rallies a day and say whatever came off the top of his head and he thinks that won him the election,” said a senior GOP congressional aide, echoing the sentiments of a still-intact class of Republicans appalled by Trump and how he is turning vast swaths of Republican-leaning suburbs into Democratic territory. “It’s like when a 25-year old gets drunk and shows up at a family engagement. That can be cute. But if you’re a 50-year-old and you show up at the gathering drunk and embarrassing, that just hits a little differently. It’s not cute anymore.”

A similar analysis was offered by Trump mega-donor Dan Eberhart:

Trump’s misunderstanding of what got him elected in 2016 is at the heart of the problem, Eberhart argued.

“Trump’s general ability to just feed the base three times over and that will carry you to victory is not really a recipe for success,” he said. “The base is high 30s and that won Trump the primary but he largely won the general election because Hillary was so unpopular. And Biden’s negatives are not as high as Hillary’s so there’s a big problem.”

These explanations attempt to spell out why Trump doesn’t pivot or try something different. But it’s probably fair to say he didn’t really try to win the first time. He just discovered that if he got himself on television everyday talking shit about people, he’d soar in Republican polls. He didn’t change anything once he realized it was working. He didn’t change his primary “strategy” for the general election. His victory was a fluke, and he thought it reflected his brilliance.

Setting aside the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economy, and the fact that Trump was impeached, everything that worked for his 2016 campaign was premised on him being an outsider. He wasn’t a Bush Republican. He wasn’t an incumbent. He hadn’t cast a million votes over decades while middle America was getting hollowed out.

None of that works when you’re the president and the leader of your party. Newt Gingrich sent a dispatch from Rome to gently point out to Trump that he’s running Nixon’s 1968 campaign when he should be modeling his 1972 reelection. That’s absolutely true, except Nixon had a good economy, was winding down the Vietnam War, had opened the door to China, and had a list of domestic accomplishments to tout. Under Trump, Americans aren’t even allowed to travel because we’re too infectious.

It doesn’t really matter. Everything could be going great and Trump’s strategy would be the same. He’d “say whatever came off the top of his head” and expect it to win him the election. It’s not a magic trick. It’s not even a trick at all. He’s just a dude on Twitter who got elected president of the United States once.

It won’t happen a second time.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com