Does Trump know he's the president?

He's an incumbent running as an outsider 'law and order' candidate

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

For most of his presidency, President Trump's approval rating has seemed very sturdy — since 2018, only a few times has he dipped below 40 percent approval in the FiveThirtyEight poll average. But the ongoing combination of economic collapse, an uncontrolled pandemic that has killed 114,000 people and counting, and now a nationwide outbreak of protest against police brutality has finally dented his numbers. Gallup found his job approval fell by 10 points in May, and CNN has him running 14 points behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

It all makes for bizarre context for Trump's developing re-election campaign strategy, which seems to be to run as the same outsider insurgent he was in 2016. He's talking constantly about "law and order," suggesting maybe an unarmed 75-year-old man badly wounded by police is some sort of agent provocateur, and trying to gin up an "Obamagate" scandal to blame his problems on the previous president.

It's a very weird campaign stance for an incumbent — and suggests that in many ways, Trump has not really grasped that he is the president.

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Some have drawn comparisons between Trump today and Richard Nixon's law and order campaign in 1968. But while there are a few superficial similarities, the differences are more important. First, Nixon was not an incumbent in '68 — and thus he could credibly argue that he would fix the disorder purportedly caused by misgovernment under President Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic leadership of many big cities. Second, Nixon also triangulated to the left against the segregationist George Wallace, whose rhetoric was much more violent and racist than his. That went well with Nixon's legacy of eight relatively calm years as vice president under Dwight Eisenhower. He could be both the candidate of putting down crime, and the moderate who wouldn't let the police get out of control.

Indeed, Trump is much closer to Wallace than he is to anyone else from the '68 campaign. Nixon was a paranoid and lawless guy but he was also an exceptionally astute politician, one of the best in American history. He did not simply hammer law-and-order themes for their own sake; he did so because it was a deft strategy at the time. In 1972 he changed his approach dramatically, running mainly on the then-strong economy (which he had stoked by putting political pressure on the Federal Reserve), and the fact that he had largely wound down the U.S. presence in Vietnam, which took the wind out of his opponent George McGovern's sails. He successfully portrayed the luckless McGovern as a deranged extremist, which he helped along by sowing division among Democrats with a campaign of illegal dirty tricks (culminating in Watergate).

In other words, Nixon understood that an incumbent must run a different sort of campaign than a challenger, and the kind of campaign he or she should run must logically depend on the political conditions of the moment.

Trump evinces no such understanding whatsoever. On the question of law and order, for instance, insofar as people are upset about looting or vandalism, there is every danger that he will be blamed for letting things get out of control. But the urge to blame others for his problems is too powerful. It's of a piece with his effort to try to whip up a scandal about Barack Obama supposedly trying to steal the election from Trump in 2016. Not only is this facially preposterous, it smacks of desperation, but Trump does it anyway.

On the other hand, it seems the public actually is broadly in sympathy with the protests against police violence, likely because the police have flagrantly instigated violence on dozens of occasions. Net support among polled voters for Black Lives Matter has risen from -5 in 2018 to +10 before these protests, and leaped to +28 most recently. Trump compulsively repeating crackbrained conspiracy theories he saw on TV about an elderly victim of police violence puts him squarely at odds with majority opinion on this issue — something Nixon would never, ever do.

Similarly, on the question of the economy, Trump has shown little sign of grasping he could influence legislative process, and hence the chance of his re-election, by making demands of Congress. He has previously pressured Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell to keep interest rates low, but now that the coronavirus recession has hit, Powell is taking aggressive steps on his own to keep credit flowing. On the various rescue packages passed through Congress, Trump has largely gone along with what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have negotiated with Nancy Pelosi. Then, when the May jobs report showed the coronavirus depression is about one-tenth fixed, instead of demanding more money so unemployment could be as low as possible on election day, Trump boasted for hours about the Big Numbers while his economic advisers declared additional aid would be unnecessary.

This is the reason why Trump had very little input on the most consequential bills passed through Congress in 50 years: He had no idea what they were talking about, or interest in learning. Whenever any discussion gets even slightly technical, or contradicts what Trump has somehow convinced himself is true, he gets bored and upset, and often goes off to watch television. This is also why there has been no substantial response to the coronavirus pandemic — it can't be solved by lying, whining, or complaining. The idea of using the government to fix the economy, or eradicate the virus, simply doesn't occur to Trump. The world is merely something that happens to him, the center of all the universe, not something with other human beings in it he might possibly influence. Trump is even somehow victimized by his own warrantless surveillance powers.

Now, Trump does have a certain weasel cunning — the demagogue's sense for intuiting what his audience wants to hear and saying it over and over and over, and the tabloid celebrity's knack for staying on the front page of the newspapers. But cunning is not the same thing as deftness or intelligence. A celebrity demagogue has only one speed. He always raises the stakes, always heightens conflict, always blames others for his errors, always says the most inflammatory things, and always sows maximum division. That can work politically, sometimes. But when the political moment calls for dignity or calm, or using the power of the presidency to fix a major crisis, Trump can't do it, because in his cramped imagination, he is the only real person alive.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.