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Trump’s Potemkin Reelection Campaign

The president’s advisers are working to convince him he’s beloved and winning. It couldn’t be further from the truth. 

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/Getty Images

In a presidential campaign, few decisions prompt more meetings and memos than the candidate’s schedule. Time is the most irreplaceable commodity in politics—and it is folly to squander it on events in locales that have no bearing on the outcome. So never in modern presidential history has a campaign kickoff been put together on a whim and a prayer.

Until now.

Last week, Donald Trump announced that he would launch his reelection drive at a massive, I’m-tougher-than-Covid rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 19. The campaign had either overlooked or cynically wanted to exploit the ugly racial subtext—the president would be celebrating Juneteenth on the site of a horrendous white riot and massacre in 1921. Eventually, the rally was postponed until Saturday. But that does nothing to erase the desperate absurdity of the campaign sending the president to a state that has been safely in Republican hands since 1964. Trump will be the first presidential candidate to visit Oklahoma during a general election campaign in modern memory.

Of course, Trump would have gone to Antarctica if it provided what he psychologically craved. The president wanted roaring crowds, shoulder to shoulder in a packed auditorium, and few places, other than Oklahoma with its pliant Republican governor, would allow it. But the Oklahoma odyssey is also a symbol of the weird dynamics that power the Trump campaign: The president’s advisers are more interested in feeding his fragile ego than they are in pursuing a rational reelection strategy.

It’s not just that they’re sending him on useless trips to Oklahoma so that he can bask in the adulation of his faithful. The campaign is also advertising heavily on Washington cable television, so that Trump can revel in the commercials even though there are no swing states within the D.C. media market. And every campaign official who talks to Trump about the latest polls does so with the trepidation of a courtier discussing Anne Boleyn with Henry VIII.

In his new book, John Bolton contends, “I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations.” But despite Trump’s seeming obsession with a second term, he refuses to make any personal sacrifices to achieve it.

In fact, he seems to be willfully endangering the lives of his supporters with a rally schedule that is the political equivalent of the Dance of Death. After Oklahoma (where the local health commissioner has said that he is “concerned about our ability to protect anyone who attends a large, indoor event”), Trump will be heading on June 23 to Arizona, which had the fourth-highest number of new Covid-19 cases last week. At these events, where the risks of infection are high, it would be a good idea for Trump to stress casting an absentee ballot early. Very early.

Normal presidents running for a second term understand the trade-offs that are required. Bill Clinton was so fixated on his 1996 reelection campaign that he had Dick Morris conduct polls to choose the most man-of-the-people vacation spot. As a result, the president and Hillary reluctantly abandoned Martha’s Vineyard to do their version of camping and roughing it in the Grand Tetons. Barack Obama also decided that his traditional August on Martha’s Vineyard would send the wrong political message, so he instead briefly vacationed in 2012 with his family at Camp David.

Trump—in case you haven’t noticed—plays by his own set of rules. Convinced that the only poll he needs is within his golden gut and certain that Fox News hosts provide the perfect focus group, he disdains traditional reelection tactics, including even the most perfunctory attempts to move to the middle. Seeing himself as the walk-on-water president after his narrow 2016 victory, he seems to believe that reelection victory is assured if he just rouses the base with rallies that combine adulation with bursts of hatred directed at Joe Biden.

The problem for Trump is the polls are all pointing toward a hefty Biden victory. Biden leads by eight points in the average of national polls calculated by RealClear Politics. A sophisticated new electoral model in The Economist gives Biden an 84 percent chance of winning in November, with a projected 335 electoral votes. Swing-state surveys tell the same story: Biden leads in all of the recent polls in Florida and Michigan, key states that Trump carried in 2016.

A major goal of the Trump reelection effort has become shielding the president from the truth about how widely he is reviled. The contortions necessary to appease Trump would qualify campaign staffers for starring roles in Cirque du Soleil. In 80 years of presidential polls (Gallup in 1939 surveyed the nation on Franklin Roosevelt’s desire for a third term), no candidate had ever threatened a lawsuit because of poor survey numbers.

But after a CNN poll gave Biden a 14-point national lead, the Trump campaign (zealously safeguarding the president’s ego) sent CNN a legal letter so absurd that it was worthy of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. The letter claimed, “It’s a stunt and a phony poll to cause voter suppression, stifle momentum and enthusiasm for the President, and present a false view generally of the actual support across America for the President.”

Even with the built-in risk of being fired and humiliated at every moment, working for the Trump campaign does have its small benefits. A HuffPost analysis of federal campaign data found that companies controlled by Brad Parscale, Trump’s imperiled campaign head, had collected $38.9 million from the president’s reelection effort from 2017 through the end of this March.

Other incumbent presidents have run feel-good reelection campaigns, most notably Ronald Reagan with his 1984 “Morning in America” TV ad that resembled a McDonald’s commercial. But Trump is running the first campaign in history designed solely to make the candidate feel good. On November 3, even if Trump shields himself by watching his new favorite network, One America News, he seems likely to face a jolting bit of reality as the returns come in.