“President Trump tackled the virus head on, as leaders should,” the woman providing the narration states at one point.
It cuts to Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s leading infectious-disease expert.
“I can’t imagine that … anybody could be doing more,” he says.
The narrator concludes: “We’ll get through this together. We’ll live carefully, but not afraid.”
It’s the sort of ad that campaigns produce all the time, repackaging unpopular opinions as popular ones. And it includes another common tactic: using an independent voice of authority — in this case, Fauci’s — to bolster that case.
Fauci, however, is not happy about being included. He has called the ad “really unfortunate and really disappointing,” given the implied endorsement, and has asked that it be taken down. The snippet used in the ad isn’t even current praise for Trump’s efforts. Instead, it’s an excerpt of a Fox News interview from March in which Fauci is obviously referring to the breadth of the government’s response, not Trump’s.
Trump’s campaign, however, has refused to pull the spot, probably in part because of its innate rejection of responding to criticism but also probably in part because it very much wants voters to have a different perception of how the president handled the pandemic. We’ve seen this before, as when Trump’s campaign pushed him to visit a hospital while wearing a mask, then robustly praised him for doing so on social media. Or when it ensured that Trump would be speaking in front of a sea of masked faces at a rally last month, even though the crowd was allowed to be unmasked for other, less-likely-to-be-televised speakers.
Trump and Fauci have been at odds on the government’s pandemic response for months. At times, that tension has boiled over into the public sphere. Concern about how the country is faring has been a constant theme of Fauci’s public comments, prompting recurring conflicts with Trump’s unmoored optimism. This week, for example, Fauci said that Trump’s rallies, at which social distancing is nonexistent, are problematic. Not an unexpected opinion from an expert on infectious diseases but certainly not what Trump wants to hear.
So Trump, true to form, lashed out at Fauci on Twitter.
The “pitching arm” gibe is a reference to Fauci’s having thrown out the first pitch for the Washington Nationals on Opening Day — a pitch that was pretty far from the mark.
On pandemic-related questions, though, the doctor has a much better win-loss record than Trump’s. Like other officials, Fauci recommended against mask-wearing early on, in part out of concern that Americans would snatch up high-quality masks needed by medical professionals. Global health experts are now less likely to recommend halting economic activity, which, like changes in understanding about the utility of masks, is in large part a function of our having learned more about the virus. We now know that measures aimed at limiting the spread can prevent having to shut down entirely, something that, seven months ago, was unclear.
So Trump wasn’t “right” about efforts to contain the virus, given that his response wasn’t: We can avoid lockdowns if we practice social distancing and mask-wearing. His response was: Just go back to normal, overlaid with Masks are kind of for nerds.
Trump’s campaign very much wants Trump to put all of that aside and present an image of a thoughtful leader listening to experts, with whom he operates in a world of mutual trust. But Trump has worked to foster skepticism of Fauci among his political base and relishes getting into public fights with his critics. So instead of trying to appeal to voters who might be on the fence by promoting the idea that he has worked hand-in-hand with scientists, the president is more eager to bash Fauci publicly.
His campaign is making a play aimed at getting him more votes. Trump is aiming at rally cheers, thumbs-up tweets and approving nods from Sean Hannity.
That isn’t without its own strategy. Since the earliest days of the Republican primary contest in 2016, Trump has had a single-minded focus on fostering energy among his most fervent supporters. He believes that amping up turnout from his base combined with the natural tendency of more-skeptical Republicans to vote for the Republican candidate is enough to win the presidency. It worked in 2016, after all, so he’s trying the same strategy again.
Since 2016, though, we’ve seen how increased skepticism of the president has led to political damage: Democrats now control the House of Representatives because voters in suburban districts shifted hard against Republican candidates. Trump’s team wants to limit a similar shift in the presidential contest by recasting Trump’s position on the pandemic. But — clearly in part because that’s not very fun — Trump doesn’t seem to be on board.
By now, any effort by Trump’s team to present the president as heeding concerns about the virus are all but useless. At a rally Monday, Trump declared himself “immune” to the virus and talked about kissing people in the audience. That same day, two prominent surrogates held indoor, crowded rallies without social distancing or widespread use of masks. The president’s son Eric Trump appeared in a basement room at a Wisconsin bowling alley; Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani spoke in a crowded space in Philadelphia.
“People don’t die of this disease anymore,” Giuliani said at the rally, then slightly moderated his comments to note that, well, most people don’t die of it. Over the past seven days, nearly 5,000 people have died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. But that’s not politically useful messaging, so Giuliani went in a different direction.
There are three weeks until the election, and there is no sign that the polls are moving toward Trump in any significant way. They still may, sure, particularly if Americans suddenly start seeing the pandemic as less important or more under control.
That may be the Trump campaign’s goal, but it’s not Trump’s. He wants his base riled up and mad at the world, rushing to vote in person on Election Day to give him a big lead before his lawyers start fighting to block the counting of mail-in ballots. If Fauci’s going to come at him, he’s going to push right back, since Republicans have more confidence in his approach to the virus than in the doctor’s.
Maybe it will work. But his actual campaign doesn’t appear terribly confident that it will.