The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The only thing that can save Trump is a different reality

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The coronavirus pandemic has killed about 110,000 Americans. Job losses since February total 20 million. Across the country, hundreds of cities and towns have seen protests over police brutality — many of which were themselves met with police brutality. So the president of the United States has a plan.

What is it? A new slogan:

Some inside Trump’s inner circle say the “Keep America Great” reelection brand and the “Sleepy Joe” nickname for Biden are not likely to be as prominent in the future. “When the president decides, there will be a new slogan and there will be new ads,” said one Trump campaign adviser, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Trump clearly believes that his slogan from 2016, “Make America Great Again,” was such a stroke of marketing genius that it propelled him all the way to the White House. And while that’s an exaggeration, we should acknowledge that it was extremely clever.

Like every effective presidential campaign theme, it described the problem (America is no longer great), defined the solution (return to our former greatness), and implicitly led to the conclusion that the candidate was the only one who could bring us from the former to the latter.

But there’s only so much a slogan can do.

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

In 2016, Trump relied for his candidacy on a version of the same dynamic he used to pull his many scams. If you enrolled in Trump University, it was because you knew him as a celebrity who had built a brand around ostentatious displays of wealth and success, and believed that if you turned over your life savings to him, you could share in that success. Trump’s cons always relied on people knowing no more about him than the image he had created.

Nsé Ufot of the New Georgia Project urges protesters to connect what they are demanding in the streets with what they are choosing at the polls June 9. (Video: Joel Adrian/The Washington Post)

Which you can do if you’re moving from one small-time con to another with a new set of marks every time. But today there’s no one left who will say, as millions of voters did four years ago, “Sure it seems a little crazy, but why not give him a shot? What’s the worst that could happen?”

Don’t get me wrong, marketing is important in presidential politics. Rhetoric matters. Ads can be more or less persuasive. The Trump campaign’s attempt to redefine Joe Biden could be more or less successful. But Trump’s biggest problem is reality.

We’ve come to believe that in the age of Trump all the rules we used to think were cast in iron no longer apply. For instance, a candidate caught on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault women with impunity, and who is then accused of various forms of sexual misconduct (up to and including rape) by two dozen women can’t possibly be elected president. But he was.

The mistake is to assume that because Trump is such a marketing genius that he can sloganeer his way out of any jam. But the truth is that his success is better explained by partisan polarization than by his own masterful performance. He was elected, and remains over 40 percent in the polls, not because he’s so persuasive but because in this age of negative partisanship very few Republicans will abandon him, no matter what.

But now the “what” in “no matter what” is happening all around us. And that — not Trump’s lack of an effective slogan — explains why Biden now leads him by an average of eight points in polls, why Trump’s approval is falling, and why he’s getting poor marks for all the crises the country faces.

I’m sure Trump’s campaign is desperately polling and focus-grouping while they brainstorm new slogan ideas — Awesomize America an Additional Time? Keep America Regreatifying? The Only Thing That Will Save Us Now Is More of This Hell? — but it’s unlikely to work. You can’t redefine Trump, because he’s already defined. Americans know who he is and what he has done.

That’s not to say he can’t win. Despite his poor position at the moment, there are any number of scenarios that could, in theory at least, produce a Trump victory. But it won’t happen because he hits upon the right slogan. It’ll take a rescue from the real world. And the real world hasn’t been kind to him lately.

Watch more Opinions videos:

Democratic Party strategist and lawyer Marc Elias says that flaws in ballot design are often overlooked but have huge repercussions on elections. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Stephen Stromberg: Trump’s campaign to forgive his lawbreaking friends continues

The Post’s View: What this year’s election campaign will look like online

Greg Sargent: Trump’s latest campaign stunt is a bust. Stop granting him magical powers.

Max Boot: Trump’s ‘I know you are, but what am I?’ campaign rolls on

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Election Day 2020 could yield a catastrophic mess