Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
President Donald Trump is facing a tough reelection campaign. The country is reeling from Covid-19, his approval ratings are sliding and Joe Biden — though stuck in the basement of his Delaware home — is polling remarkably well in competitive states.
“With the economy in free fall,” Republican pollster Glen Bolger told The New York Times, “Republicans face a very challenging environment and it’s a total shift from where we were a few months ago.”
With most experts predicting that the virus won’t disappear from our lives for at least a year, the President may have his back against the wall. For all the talk of Trump being a Teflon president who has dodged controversy after controversy, his bungling of the pandemic response seems to be sticking.
But Trump isn’t going to go down without a fight, and his reelection strategy is starting to take form. Indeed, we can see the outlines of a five-point plan that his team will count on to retain control of the Oval Office.
Ensure low turnout: With the majority of the country still in lockdown, many states are trying to ramp up voting by mail to promote voter turnout during the pandemic and help keep voters safe. The President, however, has resisted these efforts. Despite studies that show voter fraud is extremely rare, Trump called voting by mail “corrupt” and said it is “very dangerous for this country because of cheaters.”
Republicans understand that low turnout has historically benefited their party. There is a long-documented history of Republicans pursuing measures that discourage voter participation. These tactics often affect low-income and marginalized people — groups that tend to vote Democratic. Given the way this virus has hit Democratic electorates particularly hard, the lack of mail-in voting could tip the election in Trump’s favor.
Prop up big business and Wall Street: The President will do everything in his power to help the financial sector and make sure federal funds are directed toward big business interests. Trump was surely pleased that Wall Street enjoyed its best month in April in 33 years even as the nation faces a looming recession.
The $2 trillion economic stimulus bill has come under fire for doling out money to larger businesses rather than doing more to help the imperiled small-business sector. After Congress passed the stimulus bill, Trump moved to gut the oversight mechanisms that would limit his ability to direct the distribution of funds.
Trump, who has repeatedly taken credit for the booming economy in the last three years, has always been aware that what’s good for big business and high finance is good for his political standing. Over the next few months, it’s likely the President will try to keep his high-income supporters happy.
Fuel red state anger: President Trump has been using his Twitter feed to incite the anger that is brewing over the Covid-19 economic shutdown. Trump has shown his support for an increasing number of Americans who are understandably frustrated with the lockdown measures that have, in many cases, upended their lives, with the aim of cutting off the contagion that has killed more than 66,000 people across the country.
Earlier this month, Trump issued a call to “liberate” Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia. When protesters — some of whom were armed — stormed the Michigan Capitol on Thursday the President tweeted his support for the “very good people” who “want their lives back again, safely!”
Trump will promote efforts to restart the economy quickly as a way to address some of the anger mounting, particularly in red states. Rather than using his bully pulpit to ease the entire nation into the safest reopening possible, he will play to the forces of division as a way to energize his support among red state electorates as well as swing state voters. In doing so, Trump is looking to recreate some of the magic from 2016 in places like Michigan — where Joe Biden is in the lead.
Destroy Biden: With former Senate aide Tara Reade coming forward with allegations of sexual assault against Joe Biden, the President is licking his chops.
It has never been a secret that President Trump plans to destroy Biden’s reputation. This was the motivation at the core of the Ukraine scandal that ultimately kicked off his impeachment, and the playbook he used against Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Now the President has another controversy on the table — one that has a number of Democrats calling for further investigation. Unlike the attacks against Hunter Biden, this charge is directly aimed at the former Vice President, and at raising serious concerns about his conduct and character.
Biden has adamantly denied the charges and there are many serious questions about Reade’s allegations. But unless he can decisively quash the allegation, Republicans will have one more talking point they can use to question whether Biden is a man worthy of holding the Oval Office — even though their own candidate has a long list of sexual assault and harassment accusations against him.
Nativism: Just last week, the President took advantage of the pandemic and announced an immigration ban. “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” he tweeted.
The move harkened back to his 2016 campaign promise to build a wall along the southern US border. This time, the President’s executive order was much more limited in comparison, with a long list of exceptions.
Expect more of the same. Trump believes that anti-immigration rhetoric is one of the easiest ways to mobilize supporters around an imagined threat that unites them behind his candidacy, regardless of what he actually does for them. Trump can be the president of Wall Street, in his mind, and still win the support of rural working-class voters if he plays to their cultural rage. His nativist attacks on immigrants have always been the key to his conservative populism.
This is the five-point campaign strategy that the President will likely use as he seeks another four years in the White House. His team is hoping that he can defy the odds and follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, both of whom won a second term despite Democrats feeling that there was no way the nation would ever accept four more years of, what they believed to be, a total failure of leadership.