Whenever President Trump rolls out a new public stunt — from buffoonishly doctoring official charts with his Sharpie to dangerously using troops as campaign props — pundits rush to suggest that this time, Trump’s magical media manipulation powers just might work.

Now that Trump is using the theatrical and institutional powers of the presidency to bulldoze the country into restarting economic activity on his reelection timetable — while creating the illusion that we’re already roaring back to greatness — this is on its way to happening again.

But what if Trump’s grand new strategy is really kind of a joke? What if — having become overwhelmed by monumental public health and economic crises that are far beyond his limited capacities — he doesn’t have any idea what case to make for reelection under such dire and unforeseen circumstances?

The Post reports that the political argument that will now unfold over the pandemic is set. By constantly tweeting commands to “REOPEN OUR COUNTRY” and attacking governors and scientists urging caution, Trump is speaking to public yearnings to “transition to greatness,” while maneuvering Democrats into opposing those yearnings:

The exhortations follow a political strategy his advisers hope can help frame the coming election season: A president who had hoped to run on his economic record as a job creator might still be able to reclaim the brand despite the historic economic collapse by painting Democrats as opponents of an economic resurrection.
But for the moment, Democrats say they are not worried about the offensive — and convinced instead that it will backfire. From the campaign of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden down to local House races, operatives and lawmakers point to new public and private polling to argue that Trump is out of step with a nation worried about a new wave of coronavirus outbreaks and a second economic freeze.

Democrats don’t sweat the contrast, per this reporting. They are "positioning themselves as the party of gradual caution and health concern.”

When Trump refused to wear a mask at his Michigan event on Thursday, his new strategy was at work. Trump also regularly cheers on the anti-lockdown protesters as brave and heroic freedom warriors.

Writing at CNN, Stephen Collinson searches for the method here. Trump is casting himself as the “champion of an economic reawakening and of millions of Americans who lost jobs,” and telling “forgotten Americans” and “core supporters that he stands with their demands to get the country back to normal.”

Right-wing media figures have also played this game, suggesting there’s a great populist revolt against social distancing rolling across the land, and that elites insisting on restrictions are blissfully out of touch with working people chafing to get back to real-world jobs.

Indeed, when Trump dementedly suggested he didn’t wear a mask in public because he “didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” he was casting those urging caution as part of an elite conspiracy against this great populist revolt, led by him.

But this is not a clever strategy. It’s ham-handed and born of dire political circumstances that leave Trump with no choice.

Importantly, Democrats are not getting spooked by this, according to The Post’s reporting:

The Democratic confidence that this will fail is anchored in extensive surveys that suggest the fight over opening more quickly is largely taking place within the Republican base, with Democrats and independents largely united in their conviction that the only way to recover economically is to focus first on preventing more outbreaks of disease.

That’s an important insight. Extensive public polling shows that large majorities, including independents, favor caution in reopening, even among groups that supposedly thrill to Trump’s “populist” messaging, such as rural and non-college-educated whites.

The supposed populist surge for reopening is largely concentrated among Republicans, who are likely responding to partisan cues which are (ironically) coming from elites such as Trump and friendly media outlets.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear what advantages Trump is gaining in this argument. A new ABC News-Ipsos poll finds approval of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus has slid to 39 percent. The polling averages also show his approval on the pandemic sinking.

And a new Fox News poll finds Joe Biden more favored on the coronavirus by 46 percent to 37 percent. Trump’s edge on the economy is a scant 3 points. Biden is leading Trump by 48 percent to 40 percent, which suggests Trump’s effort to shift this battle into one only about the economy isn’t working, at least for now.

Trump’s propaganda is just white noise

It’s easy to explain this: Large majorities support a cautious reopening, even if it carries major economic downsides, and do not equate this caution with a deliberate effort to keep the economy down. That silly nonsense from Trump propagandists is white noise to everyone but the hardest-core Trump base.

Consider that many governors pursuing caution (including GOP ones) are enjoying far higher popularity than Trump is. As it happens, many of their states actually are taking steps toward reopening — but cautious, careful ones.

Isn’t it likely that large majorities understand that getting the balance right here will be complex and difficult, but see governors undertaking this as acting in good faith and for the public health?

Similarly, Biden might be confined to broadcasting from his basement, but, by following scientists’ recommendations even if it’s inconvenient, he’s acting out and publicly experiencing what millions of other Americans are going through. That’s a good contrast.

Ultimately, Trump cannot fathom that any other approach might be more popular and successful than his own:

This neatly illustrates why he continues down his current course — he can’t imagine that the governors are more popular because their approach has more public support. They can only be popular because they’re basking in Trump’s reflected glory.

Remember, Trump had to be talked out of his insane daily briefings by advisers, because he firmly believed they were brilliant and mesmerizing. You’ll recall we were also told those just might work.

Beating Trump will be hard, due to incumbency and his built-in electoral college advantage. But there’s no reason to presume Trump’s latest stunts are working for him, until we see real signs that they are. Right now, there aren’t any.

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