WASHINGTON – 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.
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."