We’ve gotten used to the fact that Donald Trump barely bothers to pretend that as president of the United States he’s supposed to serve the entire American public, not just that portion of the public that supports him. Nevertheless, it’s shocking to hear a president come out and say something like this about his reelection campaign:
Despite the trappings of convention, however, Trump has for the most part thrown out the playbook for incumbency. The last three two-term Presidents were lifted in important ways by a bipartisan message. Bill Clinton ran on the 1994 crime bill and tax reform. George W. Bush ran on keeping America safe in the wake of 9/11. Barack Obama reminded voters that Osama bin Laden was dead and General Motors was alive.
Trump, who lost the popular vote in 2016 and is the only President in the history of Gallup polling never to crack 50% approval, says he’s ready to defy that legacy.
“I think my base is so strong, I’m not sure that I have to do that,” he tells TIME, after being asked whether he should reach out to swing voters.
The story describes a reelection campaign that is “responsive to Trump’s impulses,” using whatever outrage he has ginned up on a given day to get his most outraged supporters even more outraged. If it were possible for a MAGA hat-wearing Trumpkin to vote 10 or 20 times if he or she gets mad enough, that might be a brilliant strategy.
But of course, it isn’t. The Trump campaign believes that it can duplicate what happened in 2016, but what it’s really putting in place is a repeat of the 2018 election.
If you’ve forgotten how that one went, here’s the basic story. In response to the Trump presidency, a wave of liberal activism and organizing swept the country. While a few Democratic candidates ran on their opposition to Trump, most spent the bulk of their time talking about issues such as health care; the anger at Trump was so baked into the dynamic of the election that they didn’t have to promote it.
Then Trump himself took over the election with what he believed was a brilliant strategy to motivate his base of supporters with two messages: This election is about me, and also immigrants are coming to kill you.
“I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket, because this is also a referendum about me,” Trump told voters that October. “I want you to vote. Pretend I’m on the ballot.”
And he warned of caravans of Central Americans coming to invade the country, saying that Americans’ very lives were at stake in the election. Days before the vote, then-speaker Paul Ryan pleaded with Trump to stop talking about the issue, but Trump “boasted to Ryan that his focus on immigration has fired up the base.”
In the end, turnout was enormous, at more than 50 percent, compared with just 37 percent in the last midterm election. Democrats took back the House and made huge gains at the state level.
And now, Trump seems to be putting in place exactly the same strategy for 2020. With the Democratic candidates set to hold their first debates next week, Politico reports, “the president and his political team are angling to dominate the news cycle with carefully released tidbits meant to keep the public hooked on the machinations of the commander in chief."
So what will we see? Democrats will have two debates that will surely include criticisms of the president, but will probably focus mostly on the issues their voters find important, such as health care, climate change, and economic inequality.
Meanwhile, Trump will be shouting, “Everybody look at me!” as he tweets out insults.
Which will certainly grab some attention. But by now we should all have learned that when Trump grabs attention, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s helping himself politically. The result is often just the opposite.
The 2020 election will obviously be distinct in all kinds of ways we can’t yet anticipate. For instance, who knows what sort of aid Russia and North Korea will give to the Trump campaign, now that he has invited them to offer their assistance?
But in some ways it’s going to look a lot like 2018: Most of the discussion centered on Trump’s antics, a Democratic nominee talking much more about issues than the president does, a whole lot of demagoguery and fear-mongering on immigration, massive turnout that benefits the Democrat, and the president convinced that if he just gets his supporters a little angrier, his victory will be assured.
He’s probably wrong, but anything could happen. We can say for sure that it isn’t going to be pretty.