Poor Brian Kemp — he obviously didn’t get the memo. When the Republican governor of Georgia announced Monday that he was going to begin opening up his state’s economy, he must have assumed that President Trump would lavish him with praise. After all, just days earlier the president had said that the country was “starting our life again” and indicated that several states were ready to open up.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted, “States are safely coming back. Our Country is starting to OPEN FOR BUSINESS again.” And yet, hours after that tweet, at his daily news conference, the president announced that he disagreed “strongly” with Kemp’s decision. Welcome to Donald Trump’s reelection strategy, where he is both the government and the opposition to that government.
Populism has always fundamentally been a protest movement of outsiders railing against a corrupt elite that runs the country. Right-wing populism, additionally, makes a distinction between the “real people” and “others” — who tend to be foreigners, immigrants, blacks, Jews and other minorities.
This strategy works well when you are outside government. Once you’re inside, though, you face a challenge. Politicians who win elections usually try to broaden their base and unify the nation. But populism depends on division and dissatisfaction.
Additionally, in times of genuine emergency, people sober up. Across the world, many populist parties that frivolously attack the establishment have struggled to make their voices heard. In a pandemic, it turns out people want their governments to take an active stance — preferably based on advice from experts.
Trump’s solution is to play insider and outsider simultaneously. One day he announces a careful plan, devised by public health officials, that outlines a step-by-step process for opening up. The next day, he sides with street protesters against governors who are following those very guidelines. It’s a complicated dance. Politicians such as Kemp, who struggle to keep up, could be forgiven for not knowing the moves.
You can watch the two Trumps at his news conferences. President Trump begins the session by making the day’s official pronouncements, reading in a dreary monotone from a script he hasn’t looked at before. And then, from time to time, Donald Trump the populist icon suddenly emerges — commenting on his own script, for example, to say, after recommending the use of masks, “This is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.” The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine continues through the briefing. As his own health officials take the podium to make a substantive point, Trump will jump in to say something that is at odds with the message they’re trying to convey.
But Trump seems worried that the dance may not be enough to win him reelection, especially as unemployment mounts. The president has surely noticed that his approval ratings remain roughly where they were before the pandemic, which is astonishing, given that crises usually boost presidential approval enormously. After 9/11, George W. Bush’s number rose to 90 percent and stayed high for months. So Trump has tried to compensate by doubling down on attacks against his usual scapegoats: the media (in what has become an absurd daily routine), blue-state governors, liberal cities, international organizations and now, most pointedly, China.
Trump and his supporters in Congress and at Fox News have launched a ferocious campaign against Beijing. It has followed a familiar pattern, one in which Fox News and Republican politicians make highly incendiary charges that Trump can then raise as questions to be investigated.
He is also returning to his favorite target: immigrants. The president’s ban on immigrants coming into the country for 60 days is strange, since the United States has largely halted immigration already. Yet it is really not a policy but rather a political symbol, a reminder to his base that they can count on him.
There is, of course, another path. Trump could have used the crisis to rally the nation around a common foe. He could have provided calm, sensible leadership, stayed on message with his own health officials and fostered unity rather than division. That is the approach of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a 79 percent approval rating. It is the strategy of Emmanuel Macron, who has moved up 10 points in his polarized France.
But it turns out that Donald Trump knows only one dance — the populism hustle — and seems uninterested in learning any other.