Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a senior political analyst at CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
President Donald Trump’s political “strategy” has always been based on negative partisanship. He does not appear to believe in the politics of addition, but in the politics of division. It’s a two-part play: he demonizes Democrats to fire up the base while trying to convince just enough swing voters that he’s a proudly politically incorrect counterweight to liberal extremism.
For the better part of a year, those attacks could be summed up in one word: “socialism.” But the S-word has basically disappeared from Trump’s vocabulary in recent months.
Check it out: In the second half of 2019 alone, Trump used the words “socialist” or “socialism” more than 100 times on Twitter or in speeches, according to the folks at Factbase. In January, he used the S-word 30 times – in February, 34 times – the equivalent of more than once a day.
Then things fell off a cliff: Trump invoked the bogeyman of socialism only four times in March, one time in April and a grand total of zero times in May.
What changed? Joe Biden beat Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, and the Democratic controlled House and the Republican controlled Senate passed (and Trump signed off on) the $2.7 trillion CARES Act Three other piece of legislation were passed, bringing Covid-crisis relief and other aid to more than $3 trillion. Suddenly, it must have seemed that socialism wouldn’t quite resonate the way he wanted on the rough road to re-election.
But this is a big change in the President’s threat matrix. And it’s a concession to the fact that the “socialism” attack doesn’t work on Joe Biden the way it might have if his opponent had turned out to be Bernie Sanders – an avowed democratic socialist.
It helps explain why Trump had been pumping up Bernie Sanders’ campaign for months. It also helps explain why he didn’t want to run against Biden – bad enough that he got impeached for trying to kneecap the former Vice President’s nascent campaign by attempting to have Ukraine announce a bogus investigation into the Biden family. (Trump denies this was his intent).
Attacking Biden as a radical left-wing socialist just doesn’t pass the swing district smell test.
The approval of trillions in Covid-related bailouts on Trump’s watch added additional headwinds. This was a crisis measure to stabilize an economy in free-fall and there are signs that it helped stave off a complete collapse. But the traditional Republican attacks on the “generational theft” of deficit and debt now ring hollow.
The kind of Tea Party screams we heard from the Bush- and Obama-era bailouts have not arrived. The bailouts under the Trump administration and the GOP-controlled Senate have already far exceeded those that were passed under Bush and Obama together. In fact, the total US debt is expected to pass $25 trillion – an all-time high that surpasses 120% of GDP– levels unseen since the Second World War, according to a USA Today analysis.
So maybe the socialist hit just isn’t the right fit for the times.
None of this means that Trump’s essential strategy of negative partisanship is going to change. The idea of Democrats as the party of radical leftists remains very much intact –he’s just pivoting to different targets.
The nationwide protests in the wake of the horrific killing of George Floyd have spurred Trump to call up his 2016 claim that he is a law and order candidate (even when it comes at the cost of law and order, as when a peaceful protest recently was violently dispersed in front of the White House so he could have a photo-op, with a Bible as a prop).
In this respect the new, progressive calls to “defund the police” are manna from heaven for the Trump campaign. The fact that Biden quickly disavowed such a policy push, while unveiling a police reform agenda should matter, but it won’t to many. Trump wants to fight on the ground of white fears.
Progressives will argue – as DC Mayor Muriel Bowser tried to explain to CNN’s Anderson Cooper – that it’s really a matter of semantics. “A lot of people have different meanings for what they mean when they say ‘defund the police’,” Bowser said, “and as I’ve listened and read, I think most people are saying that they want reform and they want good policing.”
That’s no doubt true. But then say “reform.” Because words matter. And the word “defund” is handing another political weapon to Trump that he’ll use to distract and divide.
If peaceful protests turn violent over the course of the summer, it will play into Trump’s hands. It’s worth remembering that discipline was a key component of the success of the 1960s Civil Rights Movements. The good news is that Americans are experiencing a long overdue sea-change in their awareness of how police are more likely to use excessive force against African-Americans.
Trump’s channeling of Bull Connor, threatening protesters with “vicious dogs,” provides only one small measure of how he’s on the wrong side of history.
But the President’s self-inflicted wounds are already severe, as the new CNN poll confirms. He’s at 38% approval rating with a 57% disapproval rating. The cross-tabs poll’s reveal just how deep a hole he’s in, with every demographic disapproving except whites without a college degree, with whom he’s got a slim 52% approval. He’s underwater with every age group and down to 37% support among independents, who he won over Hillary Clinton in 2016. This is the cost of Trump’s play-to-the-base, negative partisanship strategy as President.
With less than 150 days to the election, Trump will continue to try and slash and burn his way to a narrow electoral – rather than popular – vote victory. But the fact he’s abandoned his socialist attacks, at least for now, shows some belated, self conscious awareness that Joe Biden’s nomination and the combined Covid-19 and economic crises have him backed into a corner – which is precisely where he is most dangerous.