“In 2016, Trump’s buffoonery was held up by some as a refreshing rejection of an ineffectual status quo. He would step up to the plate eventually, they thought,” said former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook, explaining the thinking that now dominates his party’s strategists. “Today, it’s the same buffoonery, except it is killing people.”
About 7,500 guests are expected to gather to see Trump. In keeping with the president’s preferences, the rally will occur without any mandates from South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) to socially distance or wear masks, despite federal health guidelines that suggest them and overwhelming public opinion against such events. A recent Fox News poll found eight in ten Americans favored mask wearers and less than one in four thought it was a good idea for presidential candidates to hold large political events or rallies right now.
This contradiction has become a central target for former vice president Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, which has been drawing on Democratic polling and focus groups that find enormous new vulnerabilities for Trump that have contributed to his recent slide in the polls.
“Mr. President, this is not about you,” Biden said Tuesday, in a succinct summary of his message. “It’s about the health and well-being of the American public.”
A gut political player, Trump has for years dismissed criticism of his narcissistic public style and proved his naysayers wrong when they predicted it would lead to his downfall. He boasted his way to the top of the Republican nomination fight in 2015 and won the White House with a great-man theory of governance summed up with his convention declaration: “I alone can fix it.”
Since then, Trump has repeatedly declared himself the best, the most knowledgeable and the most righteous as president. “Nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president,” he said in 2018.
But he has struggled this year, as a pandemic and economic shutdown took hold, to wield that self-regard against national fears about crises that have impacted nearly every American in painful ways. In the last two weeks, Trump has pushed for largely maskless mass gatherings in Arizona and Oklahoma, two states that have seen recent spikes in coronavirus cases. He also pushed for the relocation of his nominating convention to Florida, another state battling an outbreak, to increase the odds that he is greeted by roaring crowds in late August.
Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee who did not vote for Trump, said voters took note when Secret Service agents and campaign officials had to self-quarantine after a rally Trump staged in Tulsa last month over the objections of public health experts. Two agents and at least six campaign staffers tested positive for the virus.
“The challenge for Trump here is that all of the risks that are being taken are done solely for his own benefit,” he said. “That is, without question, going to cause some voters who would otherwise approve of things that his administration does to turn away from him. So by acting in his own very immediate self-interested interest, he’s hurting himself in the longer term, which is reelection.”
Democratic pollster Jefrey Pollock conducted focus groups on Trump in 2016 that found many Americans who disliked both presidential candidates were still attracted to Trump’s self-important declarations, because they felt economically secure enough to take a chance on someone new. That same category of voters — those with a favorable view of neither candidate — now favors Biden over Trump by a margin of 55 to 21 percent, according to a Monmouth Poll released Thursday.
“Three years later, it is the voters who need attention,” Pollock said of Trump. “Voters are looking at an individual who has a sense of entitlement, when they need more attention to their own needs.”
Other polling by Navigator Research, a coalition meant to inform Democratic strategy up and down the ballot, has noted an uptick in recent weeks in the number of people who describe Trump as “self-absorbed,” according to Nick Gourevitch, a pollster on the project. Of a long list of negative attributes that the Democrats regularly test against Trump — including “incompetent,” “chaotic” and “divisive” — the poll has found “self-absorbed” raises the most concerns among self-described independent voters.
“A lot of the concerns throughout the pandemic — ignoring experts, not following precautions, — can all be tied back to this trait,” Gourevitch said.
National polling shows Trump’s ratings on empathy have not shifted much during his four years in office. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found 41 percent believed he “cares about the needs of ordinary people,” compared with 40 percent who told Gallup pollsters in September 2016 that he “cares about the needs of people like you.”
But the candidate he is running against has changed, and so has the political dynamic. While 48 percent of voters gave Democrat Hillary Clinton positive marks for empathy in Gallup polling four years ago, 54 percent in the Pew poll now credit Biden with caring about ordinary people.
The problem with Trump’s self-referential worldview appeared this April in focus groups by the pro-Biden SuperPAC Unite The Country. Memos produced by the group afterward identified a big opportunity for Biden to lean into his reputation for empathy.
“What is striking is that much of the criticism of Trump’s response to the virus is about his personality (‘he always makes it about himself’) than setting in place policies that could have made a difference,” one pollster wrote. The conclusion, which has become a driving theme of the $1.4 million in recent television advertising by the group, was that “many voters believe Trump’s ego is getting in the way of progress on Covid-19.”
Since then, Biden has draped himself in constant demonstrations of empathy and concern for others, consistently wearing a mask and often leaving it dangling from an ear when he speaks on camera to demonstrate its importance.
At the age of 77, he would find himself at high risk for serious complications were he to contract the coronavirus, and his travel and security detail puts him in touch with a large number of possible carriers. But he has so far refused to test himself for the disease, he said, so it would not look like he was “moving to the front of the line.”
“I haven’t wanted to take anybody else’s place in the process,” Biden said.
The president’s defenders say voters appreciate Trump’s straightforwardness more than symbolic gestures that smack of politics.
“The president is who he is — he’s going to push,” said Bryan Lanza, an adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign and transition. “He’s not a typical politician who listens to you, tells you one thing and does something else behind your back. With Donald Trump, you know exactly what you’re getting, and you know exactly what he’s going to do.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
But a growing number of the president’s former advisers have spoken out in recent weeks, offering at times blistering critiques of his leadership skills and personal character. Much of the criticism has taken Trump to task for being selfish or narcissistic, putting his own needs ahead of those of the country.
The list of aides-turned-detractors includes former defense secretary Jim Mattis, former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly and former national security adviser John Bolton.
In his book published last month, Bolton describes Trump as obsessed with his own press coverage and more interested in his reelection than any broader foreign policy objectives.
“I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by reelection calculations,” Bolton wrote in the book.
Trump, who has blasted Bolton as an “idiot,” has claimed that his memoir is full of falsehoods.
Several Republicans have publicly and privately pushed Trump to focus less on himself as he prepares to face voters. Trump’s rambling answer to a question about his “top priority items” for a second term during a Fox News town hall last month set off alarm bells among allies who hoped the president would offer a more detailed vision for the next four years.
In his answer, Trump used the word “I” 13 times, as he talked up his outsider “experience” in Washington and the “great people” in his administration.
“I always say talent is more important than experience,” he said, offering little on his second-term plans.
Five days later, Biden offered a rejoinder at an event near his Delaware home, where he spoke to a mostly empty room of socially-distanced journalists.
“If you have noticed, the president puts everything in terms of him,” Biden said. “It’s not about ‘I.’ It’s about us.”