The virus has taken away President Trump’s biggest reelection weapon. But he has a big weapon left, and he’s wielding it relentlessly.
Gone is his economic message: “You’ve never had it so good, the stock market has never been so high, and unemployment has never been so low.”
But Trump hasn’t lost the weapon that got him elected and could get him reelected: his ability to divide and conquer.
That weapon is super-charged by the President’s willingness, eagerness and ability to dominate the public debate. He has turned his daily White House briefings into the most powerful of bully pulpits.
But therein lies a risk. For Trump can – and has – hurt himself as much as he helps himself in the briefings. Staying at a podium for more than an hour is like staying at a bar past midnight: Not much good can happen.
Trump reminds me of North Carolina’s Senator Jesse Helms. I still have scars from Governor Jim Hunt’s unsuccessful campaign against Helms for Senate in 1984. That race taught me some hard lessons about politics.
Helms’ team approached the race very differently from us. Hunt was a popular Governor, while Helms was controversial and unpopular. We thought that gave us an edge.
But the Helms campaign didn’t try to make him more popular than Hunt. They didn’t think that was possible, I later learned. So, they flipped the script.
Their goal was to make Hunt more unpopular than Helms.
They did a good job. They started running negative ads against Hunt 18 months before the election. They never stopped.
Much like Trump does to his opponents today, they tied Hunt to people and groups who were unpopular with a lot of North Carolina voters: Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders, Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, abortion-rights supporters, labor unions and what Helms called “the homosexual lobby.”
This same strategy is Trump’s trump card, if you will. He played it against Hillary Clinton. He’ll play it against Joe Biden.
A Republican political consultant once explained to me the ironclad hold that Trump has on his famous base: “He’s fighting the people they hate.”
That’s why Trump constantly picks fights. He fights with Democrats in Congress, with bureaucrats in Washington and with politicians of both parties.
At his virus briefings, he picks fights with reporters, with governors and with his own public health experts.
He picks a fight with China by calling it the “Chinese virus.” He picks fights with the World Health Organization. He picks fights with his own staff, Cabinet and military commanders.
The day he announced his campaign for President, he picked a fight with Mexico and immigrants. He picked fights with John McCain and a Gold Star family. He picked fights with his Republican primary opponents – nasty, personal fights.
He’s a fighter. His base loves that. They love him for fighting, and they hate the people he fights.
But his greatest strength can also be his greatest weakness. Trump is President at a time when the nation is facing the greatest crisis in a generation.
It’s a double whammy: thousands of people are dying and getting sick, and millions of people are losing their jobs and businesses.
Ultimately, President Trump will face the voters’ judgment on how he has responded and on how he acts from here out. This election was always going to be a referendum on Trump. Now it’s even more so.
Voters know he’s good at fighting his enemies. They’ll judge how good he is at fighting for the country.