Coronavirus could end Trump's presidency. Populism could save it.
President Trump's 2020 campaign has a lot going for it that it didn't four years ago.
This time around, Trump has money. Despite being an incumbent battling for re-election in the midst of a global pandemic and an accompanying economic slowdown, his fundraising apparatus hasn't dwindled. As such, he won't have to rely on a generous helping of free media coverage or somewhat more modest contributions from his own personal fortune, though he will still be able to tap into both, in addition to his small donor army. In 2016, the Republican establishment was an opponent in the primaries, if an ineffectual one, and a reluctant participant in the general election. This year Trump has enjoyed its full support.
While Trump's campaign has plenty of money in its second iteration, what it lacks is the populist energy that helped him topple 16 prominent Republican primary opponents decisively and then Hillary Clinton. If there isn't an economic recovery by the time the November election rolls around, a campaign based on tax cuts and a once-rising stock market isn't likely to do the trick, no matter how well funded it may be.
Of course, Trump didn't get elected with happy talk. Indeed his rhetoric relied heavily on doom, gloom, and demonizing the status quo. He warned of "American Carnage" and the deteriorating living standards of the "forgotten American." That's a lot easier to do as a quasi-challenger after the other party has been in the White House for eight years than it will be as an incumbent. But Trump could still build a campaign around standard left-right fault lines, even during a coronavirus-induced contraction.
After all, Trump has been saying China is up to no good since at least the 1980s, and now the people's republic has emerged as the top villain in the pandemic. He has been warning about American manufacturing capacity for at least that long, calling for self-sufficiency in basic needs that help national security. Trump was talking about supply chains before he came to Washington. Now Chinese export restrictions are feeding into shortages of ventilators and protective face masks needed to battle the coronavirus.
Trump will still have to answer for whether he has delivered on his campaign promises. His corporate tax cut was signed into law, but the border wall remains largely unbuilt. His tariffs have yet to produce a major breakthrough with China, whose president Trump now hesitates to criticize. The endless wars keep humming along even though it is now obvious what those lost trillions could have bought at home. Instead of struggling to come up with a bipartisan infrastructure program, we are struggling to come up with enough protective face masks for medical workers.
Fortunately for Trump, he isn't running against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was well positioned to make these arguments against the president's record but ultimately proved too radical even for Democratic voters. Trump's opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, is an apologist for the pre-Trump bipartisan status quo on trade and foreign policy, and has many of the same vulnerabilities Clinton did four years ago.
But given what is going on in the country at the moment, the pre-Trump status quo might sound pretty good to a lot of voters. The key for Trump's campaign will be to redirect the message away from Trump's intemperate behavior and toward a semi-coherent "America first" governing program. The current political climate may lend itself to this messaging: Voters might be willing to show a little preferential treatment to their own citizens, and some skepticism toward supranational organizations such as the World Health Organization. However, a lot of the people who believed in the "America first" populist agenda from the start — such as Steve Bannon — are missing from the 2020 campaign.
Trump will need to regain that energy to weather the storm. His recent executive order curtailing immigration, however hastily issued, may be an admission of this fact. Voters will largely judge him by the perceived effectiveness of his coronavirus response, but a populist Trump will be more likely to receive the benefit of the doubt in November. If things are looking up by August or September, the president will have a chance, and the Trump-establishment shotgun wedding will have outlived its usefulness.
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