The President gave every impression Thursday of battling for his political life during a visit to Michigan, a state that crystallizes the themes of his bid for a second term and that could be decisive in his clash with Democrat Joe Biden. It was his most explicit display yet of his plans to beat treacherous pandemic politics and criticism of his leadership in pursuit of an even more logic-busting victory than in 2016.
Trump told reporters that he wore a mask when he was away from the cameras, not wanting “to give the press the pleasure,” and a photo of him wearing one circulated on social media after his visit.
Trump primarily used the trip to present himself as the champion of an economic reawakening and of millions of Americans who lost jobs, portraying Democrats as adding to the desperation of shut-out workers.
“A permanent lockdown is not a strategy for a healthy state or a healthy country. To protect the health of our people we must have a functioning economy,” Trump said, implicitly discounting arguments of critics who say it’s not yet safe to reopen.
“Americans who want and need to return to work should not be vilified — they should be supported,” Trump said, lashing out at journalists and politicians who can work from home.
Trump also hit his central campaign themes, hyping his new trade deals, escalating his effort to use China as a scapegoat for not stopping a pandemic he himself long ignored and celebrating the border wall that is crucial to his bond with his supporters. And he took a new shot at Biden’s mental capacity, branding the former vice president “a Democrat that doesn’t even know where he is.” And even before he left the White House, Trump delivered yet another carrot to his evangelical supporters, then followed up in Michigan.
“What I want to do is get the churches open. The churches are not being treated with respect by a lot of the Democrat governors,” the President claimed.
Biden’s capacity to counter Trump’s chosen image as the voice of the jobless — by highlighting, for instance, his favors to corporations in the GOP tax cut bill and in stimulus funding — could turn into a critical passage of the election.
“For the last three years, Donald Trump has turned his back on Michigan’s working families. His delayed, erratic, and corrupt response to the pandemic has been no different,” Biden said in a statement on Thursday.
“In Donald Trump’s America, the wealthy and well-connected have gotten relief — while small business owners have too often seen their doors shutter,” he added.
And the tactics that the President unveiled on Thursday will slot into his wider campaign to win the states that might hold the destiny of the White House, including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Trump also shows his liabilities
Yet Trump’s fervent campaigning on Thursday also hinted at his vulnerabilities in a pivotal state that has moved against Republicans since his shock 2016 victory.
In many ways, Trump is playing catchup since satisfaction with his performance in the state trails public approval of the job being done by Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, with whom he has picked a political fight that he seems so far to be losing.
In a Fox News poll in April, 64% of Michigan voters approved of the job that Whitmer was doing in fighting the pandemic. And 58% of people in the state had a favorable impression of the Democratic governor, compared to 44% who had a favorable impression of the President.
In the 2018 midterm elections Michigan was a test case for how suburban and female voters turned against a President whose strength at framing economic themes is often obscured by his chaotic and vengeful personal leadership style.
The President’s trip also highlighted his bet that his political base — stoked by his cultural feuds with Washington elites — will deliver an even more famous victory than in 2016.
Trump made sure he was pictured addressing executives during a factory tour without a mask, cementing his chosen image as an unbowed warrior President standing with supporters who chafe against social distancing as an infringement on freedoms.
“Built Trump tough,” the President declared, appropriating Ford’s advertising slogan for his own purposes.
Calling the bluff of local Democratic officials, he insisted he wore a mask away from the cameras and gave himself political cover by blaming the media for a kerfuffle he whipped up himself by defying his own government’s advice on masks.
“I had one on before,” he said. “But I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure. … I think it sets an example both ways,” Trump said.
Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” — an unofficial campaign anthem — pounded out of the speakers as a barefaced Trump, introduced by masked Ford officials, took the stage with a clenched fist. Every president shades the line by using official events for political purposes. Trump just obliterates it.
A spike in infections could undercut Trump’s message
Trump’ economic reopening message offers the promise of broadening his support beyond his most loyal supporters — in the industrial Midwest especially.
But it’s still a huge gamble. A spike in infections could offer Democrats a fresh opening to argue that after ignoring the threat from the pandemic, which has so far killed more than 94,000 Americans and crashed the economy, Trump caused a second disaster by pushing reopening too soon.
And a base-pleasing strategy could still alienate many other voters in Michigan, such as those in two Trump-won congressional districts that Democrats flipped in 2018, and elsewhere.
“His base is still not the majority. On questions of timing and whether people feel comfortable going out and wearing masks, polling shows people with positions much closer to the governor,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan, who has written extensively about Trump and his rhetorical style.
But Kall added: “This is all subject to change. As we get closer to the election, certainly there is potential for the way people feel now, and support for her, to erode.”
Trump’s assaults on Whitmer appeared actually to have elevated her and made her a national political figure: she’s been touted by many pundits for a spot on Biden’s ticket.
The governor’s 2018 victory was also seen as a repudiation of Trump’s style and behavior, leading to the impression that a Democrat who did not take the state for granted, as Clinton did in 2016, might have beaten Trump and retained the White House for Democrats at the same time.
Trump’s decision to go after a popular Democratic governor — as he did last week in Pennsylvania with Tom Wolf — is in some ways a sign of the President’s weakness in that he needs to destroy and discredit opponents and cannot just rely on the strength of his own record to win reelection.
An incumbent’s advantage
Trump’s few hours in Michigan also underscored his utter lack of guilt in politicizing and misrepresenting the reality of the worst domestic crisis to confront the US since World War II.
The event was designed to highlight Ford’s role in repurposing its production lines to build ventilators and protective medical equipment for medical workers. Earlier in the crisis Trump was heavily criticized for failing to fully utilize the Defense Production Act to quickly produce equipment for the nation’s hospitals. He can point to the fact that the feared rationing of ventilators did not occur — mostly for outside reasons — as he recasts a narrative that he botched the pandemic response.
The strains of Trump’s campaign soundtrack echoing through the factory highlighted the infrastructure advantages that he enjoys as a President — able to effectively hold what are thinly veiled campaign events while Biden is quarantined in his basement.