Hillary Clinton is not running for president again in 2020 — she has said so, her aides know it, and there is no political rationale that would argue otherwise. But for President Trump, facts like those simply miss the point.
“I was recently asked if Crooked Hillary Clinton is going to run in 2020?” Trump declared in a tweet Monday morning. “My answer was, ‘I hope so!’ ”
Just like that, Trump had accomplished his morning task, conjuring and then belittling a political villain with little more than taps on a phone. Using a bit of deadpan humor and his unconventional grammar, Trump’s tweet formed the next turn in his us-against-them story line, which employs an endlessly evolving band of enemies to anchor his presidency.
By the afternoon, his tweet had become a topic in an impromptu Rose Garden news conference, where he was able to repeat the performance in person. “Hillary, please run again,” he called out in a mocking tone.
Most days bring another round, often at dawn, like plot points in a 24-7 miniseries. In just the past few weeks, Trump has started, without any clear provocation, fights with football players who kneel during the national anthem, department stores that declare “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and late-night television hosts for their “unfunny and repetitive material.”
Then there are the individual targets: Clinton, of course, but also “Liddle” Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, North Korea’s “Little Rocket Man” Kim Jong Un, ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), and a shifting array of reporters, newspapers and networks he labels as the “fake news.”
Although the targets often appear tangential, if not contradictory, to his governing priorities, both the president and his senior aides see them as central to his political strategy. In each instance, the combat allows Trump to underline for his core supporters the populist promise of his election: to challenge the power of political elites and those who have unfairly benefited from their “politically correct” vision.
It’s a tactic he has employed for years — defining himself against a negative space, as a tough truth teller who opposes others. In 1990, he condemned his New York real estate rival, Leona Helmsley, as a “truly evil human being,” and decades later he spent years nursing a viciously personal feud with Rosie O’Donnell, a daytime television host, largely through social media. His rise to politics was built upon sometimes shocking denunciations and insults.
Without a fresh foe to rail against in real time, his political aides have observed, Trump can struggle, uncertain of his next move and unable to frame the political debate.
“The low points, if there are any, are often when his opponent is not clearly defined,” said one senior White House official, who insisted on anonymity to speak freely about the president. The official described the days after the first failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act in March and the weeks near the general election in 2016 as particularly trying times, because Trump was unable for days to clearly define his enemy.
But when the president is on track — he calls Twitter “my voice” — he can script his presidency like a professional wrestling match, where the heel, or bad guy, is the one who makes the face, or good guy, shine in the ring. This is, as it happened, exactly how he scripted his one appearance in the professional wrestling ring, at the 2007 WrestleMania.
In what was billed as the “battle of the billionaires,” his foe was Vince McMahon, the owner of WWE, who long ago mastered the art of playing the clown who inspired hatred. With McMahon winning the animosity of the crowd, Trump’s participation was limited to a few straight lines and stoic looks. The sputtering fury of the loser McMahon — whose wife Linda now leads Trump’s Small Business Administration — told the story for him.
Similarly, the outrage of liberals and Trump skeptics, including many in the media, at Trump’s denunciations often helps the president with his base voters and serves to spread the Trump message further.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a supporter of the president, says he has come to see the value of Trump’s strategy, which can frame public debates to his advantage. “In the spring, I quit worrying about his tweets — and I think some of the stuff he does is outrageous — but he has a larger vision of creativity,” Gingrich said. “He intuits how he can polarize.”
Trump’s approach to finding and elevating enemies is more personal and more specific than past presidents. His predecessor, Barack Obama, defined and elevated political enemies. But he followed in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, speaking of abstract wealthy and selfish economic interests that had conspired with Republicans against the middle class.
Like the other Democratic populists of the 20th century, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, Obama rarely named specific people and largely refrained from launching personal attacks on the character of his opponents.
If anything, Trump is harking back to an earlier tradition, including the populist movement of the late 19th century. "A villain was needed, marked with the unmistakable stigmata of the villains of melodrama," the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in his 1955 book "The Age of Reform." "It was not enough to say that a conspiracy of the money power against the common people was going on."
The early populist villains were the rich, including the Rothschild banking family and the nation’s newspapers, which were portrayed as puppets for the powerful. Trump has embraced some but not all of those approaches, says Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University who has written several histories of populism.
“It’s a populism that looks at the political elite and the media elite as opposed to the economic elite,” Kazin said of Trump. “Obviously, more than any president I can remember, he thrives on conflict.”
Several of Trump’s closest advisers have taken to echoing their boss’s tactics. Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., has also made a hobby of firing off social media provocations. In just the past week, he has attempted to quarrel with late-night host Jimmy Kimmel (over his response to Hollywood sexual harassment), the Boy Scouts (for accepting girls as members) and British lawmakers (for their response to acid attacks), among others.
Similarly, Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway began attacking Clinton last week after news broke alleging years of harassment and sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer. Conway focused on how the time it took Clinton to release a statement on Weinstein, a critique that neatly fit the news about a Hollywood predator into a conservative political story line.
When Fox News invited Conway on to talk more about Clinton’s alleged culpability, the Trump adviser left little doubt about her underlying motivations.
“I tweet very sparingly yet strategically,” she said with a smile. “I’m always amazed how easily baited some people are.”