President Donald Trump is fighting back against the public health and economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic in the same way he’s navigated other political perils — by stoking the nation’s partisan divide.
But the scale of the crisis the US is facing — more than 39,000 people dead and tens of millions out of work — is bigger than anything Mr Trump has faced. Even some Republican strategists doubt that his standard campaign playbook will work in November.
With the “rally around the flag effect” waning and his poll numbers down, the president abandoned a pretence of bipartisanship on Friday by tweeting that his supporters should “liberate” Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia — three states with Democratic governors and strict stay-at-home orders. Protests in Michigan, whose governor, Gretchen Whitmer, is a possible running mate for Democrat Joe Biden, have been organised by a Trump campaign surrogate.
The pivot came just a day after Trump himself outlined a methodical return-to-work policy contingent on states meeting specific benchmarks on testing and Covid-19 cases, and to be determined at state-government level.
By egging on the protesters in subtle and not-so-subtle ways — on Saturday, Trump referred to social distancing measures taken at US Air Force Academy’s commencement ceremony as “politically correct” — the president is creating a new flashpoint in America’s culture war.
Already the response to the pandemic in the US has split largely along regional and cultural lines, with moderate and liberal governors in the Northeast and on the West Coast taking the earliest and most aggressive steps to “flatten the curve” of the virus. States with the highest number of cases are “blue” states, too.
Republican governors in the South and West have bristled against the harshest stay-at-home measures, and conservative-leaning critics and media outlets increasingly say government officials have gone too far in telling them how to live their lives.
Mr Trump’s tweets and off-the-cuff comments show sympathy for protesters — whose membership appears to overlap closely with his “base” — even as polling suggests that Mr Trump is misreading the national mood on this issues.
“I don’t know if it will be an effective route for the president to take, to pit himself against any Democratic governor, because at the end of the day the consequences of re-opening the economy too soon will destabilise the strong positioning the president has,” said Mattie Duppler, a Republican strategist.
Nearly six-in-10 Americans say they’re more concerned that a relaxation of stay-at-home restrictions would leave to more Covid-19 deaths than they are that the measures have gone to far and will hurt the economy, a poll showed on Sunday.
Still, responses to the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll taken April 13-15 fell along predictable partisan lines. Democrats and independents were more worried about the virus than the economy, while Republicans, by 48% to 39 per cent, were more concerned about the economy.
Mr Trump has also attacked Mr Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, for his handling of health crises during the Obama administration, and accused the Chinese government of hiding the number of infected citizens — all messages that could resonate with his base.
On Saturday, Mr Trump, who has already at times used the term “Chinese virus”, went a step further to embrace a theory put forward by some Republican lawmakers for months, that China may be “knowingly responsible” for the Covid-19 outbreak and its spread around the globe.
“If it was a mistake, a mistake is a mistake. But if they were knowingly responsible, yeah, then there should be consequences,” the president said at a White House press briefing.
Mr Trump and his campaign have been forced to chart a new course for an election that’s morphed into a referendum on the president’s management of a national emergency of unprecedented sale.
The pandemic, which has sickened more than 700,000 people in the US, has obliterated his best case for re-election — the strong economy and decades-low unemployment. Several states crucial to a second Trump term, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, have seen dramatic spikes in unemployment. Roughly 22 million people have filed for unemployment in the country in the last three weeks alone.
Making matters worse for the president, the initial polling bump he received at the outset of the pandemic has evaporated. Almost two-thirds of Americans say Mr Trump was too slow to take major steps to stop the virus when outbreaks were reported in other countries, according to a Pew Research Centre survey. Mr Trump’s approval rating in the latest Gallup poll was 43%, down six percentage points from its high point in mid-March when the president first introduced social distancing guidelines.
Mr Trump’s allies acknowledge the election will be won or lost based on the president’s handling of the pandemic, but argued that he would ultimately prevail if he gradually leads the nation towards a successful re-opening.
“Ultimately, 2020 is going to be all about the recovery,” said Jason Miller, spokesman for Mr Trump’s first campaign in 2016. “What Trump is going to be judged on is what the recovery looks like; how well we do from our low point until we get to the election in November. And as long as President Trump is able to keep leading us in a positive direction and keep things going, I think he’ll be rewarded at the ballot box.”
Mr Trump has hit back at criticism of his virus-response efforts that could damage him politically. He even played a campaign-style video during a White House news conference in response to critical media reports, as the daily briefings, which can stretch beyond two hours, have come to substitute for political rallies.
His decision to side with the protesters, even if they are challenging policies his own administration encouraged states to adopt, might help do that.
“It shows him that there’s people who are wanting the economy open, and he can use that as justification for doing it because he sees people who are Trump voters wanting that to happen,” said Jennifer Hoewe, a professor of political communication at Purdue University. Mr Trump’s political gamble is “if he tries to get people back to work, will that then inspire his base to come vote in November”, or if he pushes to open too soon and people become sick again that will “possibly inspire Democrats to get out and vote.” While egging on protesters in Michigan and Minnesota, he’s remained silent on Ohio, a battleground state where Republican governor Mike DeWine is facing similar protests against stay-at-home measures.
The conservative House Freedom Caucus, which supports Mr Trump, released a letter to the president largely echoing his message minutes after the president’s tweets were published. “Some of the measures enacted to combat the virus have wreaked havoc on the American economy,” it read. The Tea Party Patriots Action group, which sprung up in opposition to then President Barack Obama, also weighed in, saying that governors in the states Trump urged be “liberated” are “abusing their power”.
Mr Biden, campaigning from his finished basement in his home in Wilmington, Delaware, has tried to highlight what he sees as Mr Trump’s mismanagement.
“The uncomfortable truth is that this president left America exposed and vulnerable to this pandemic,” Mr Biden said in a new digital video released on Friday. “He ignored the warnings of health experts and intelligence agencies, and put his trust in China’s leaders instead. And now we’re all paying the price.”
Mr Biden at first tried to avoid politicising the pandemic, urging Mr Trump to adopt his proposals to help the nation and participating in a one-on-one call with the president. Those niceties, however, are disappearing as Mr Biden slams Mr Trump’s “temper tantrums”. The Trump campaign is responding in kind.
Mr Trump’s campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso said that Mr Biden’s “big government, socialist policies” would “create chaos and confusion during the pandemic”.
“In contrast, President Trump’s proven record of success ushered in the largest economic renaissance in American history. He did it once and he’ll do it again in his second term,” Mr Farnaso said.
Still, the challenge for the Biden campaign remains counter-programming a president who commands the news cycle. Stuck in his new basement studio, Mr Biden is limited in the ways he can sell his message to the American people, and with no policymaking authority there’s little he can do to respond to the public health crisis.
Therefore, in addition to attacking Mr Trump, the Mr Biden campaign is hoping to emphasise Mr Biden’s experience handling crises during his years as vice president, particularly his work overseeing the Recovery Act after the 2008 recession.