Election 2020

With Biden Bearing Down, Trump Plays the ‘Wartime’ Leader

The shape of the 2020 race is now clear: a trusted establishment Democrat versus an incumbent rallying Americans against an “invisible enemy.” Can Trump pull it off?

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus outbreak at the White House on March 17. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In a remarkable change of tack, U.S. President Donald Trump this week completely discarded his earlier cavalier approach to the coronavirus pandemic and assumed the role of a leader in a “war” against an “invisible enemy,” seeking to resurrect his presidency in the face of a global public health crisis and fast-faltering economy with less than eight months to go before the election.

With Democratic challenger Joe Biden all but assured of the nomination following crushing primary victories Tuesday against his last challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Trump knows he needs to muster national support for an anti-virus campaign that is suddenly taking on the dimensions of a nation in wartime. It is a role that others, including the New York Times editorial page, appear to be urging on him, and even Biden, in a livestream victory speech from Delaware Tuesday night after his big wins in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona, said the task ahead for any leader was “akin to fighting a war.”

In the end, as Trump strives to climb back up in the polls, it may well be the biggest act of his life—a career full of large-scale theatrics—and the only question is whether he can pull it off. Earlier Tuesday, Trump and his team announced unprecedented measures including a nationwide program for abatement of the virus and the possibility of a trillion-dollar stimulus including billions in aid to businesses and workers.

“We have to win this war, and ideally quickly,” Trump said at a White House briefing as he somberly deferred to his top medical experts in a way that he has rarely done in the past with the many military and economic advisors he has haphazardly discarded during his often-chaotic three-and-a-half-year tenure. “One day we’ll be standing up here and say, ‘Well, we won.’”

The president kept up the wartime conceit later in the day, tweeting, “The world is at war with a hidden enemy. WE WILL WIN!” Gone were the dismissive rants of a week ago; the reckless blaming of his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the coronavirus’s spread; the careless, seat-of-the-pants announcements about policies that didn’t even exist yet. In its place was a refashioned Trump: somber, sober, a very presidential-seeming unifier of the nation (even as he continued to take potshots at assorted Democrats such as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, allegedly for “not doing enough”) .

One Trump biographer, Michael D’Antonio, said the president is demonstrating his typical cunning and showmanship, as well as survival instincts honed over a lifetime of near career deaths in business. “The president never stops considering his re-election so clearly the change in tone and sudden respect for experts is related to his concern that this is one problem for which bluster is insufficient,” he said in an email. “By the way, his ability to act in a more conventional way suggests that his wildman routine is just that, a routine, and he has used it to manipulate us.”

Another Trump biographer, Gwenda Blair, also suggested the “new” Trump is little more than a performance, and by deferring to the experts he is retaining his ability to do what he does regularly: blame others. “He is handing things off to others right and left, perhaps in part a bow to their expertise (although of course he recognized that this was a pandemic before anyone else, etc.), but I think it’s his version of deniability,” she said in an email. “As things get worse, and they will, he can blame/keep blaming others.” 

Trump’s performance was not without its typical Trumpian flourishes, including repeatedly referring to his administration’s efforts to respond to the coronavirus as the best in the world, saying they’ve “never been done before.” He also appeared to use the pandemic to justify bringing supply chains and therefore jobs back to American shores, saying, “I’ve been talking about this for years,” and to assign blame to China, calling the pandemic the “Chinese virus.” But on the whole he is, for the moment, behaving like a new, very different Trump.

And he may be on to something. Though a pandemic is nothing like a real war, it almost feels like one at the moment. Wartime leaders do generally get a lot of slack from the electorate, as President George W. Bush did against John Kerry in 2004, even as the Iraq invasion was going badly wrong. And of course, famously, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who took the unprecedented step of running for reelection for a third term with the U.S. entry into World War II imminent, and then winning a fourth term in the middle of it.

But there are pitfalls too: If the sense of crisis over the coronavirus recedes well before November, the president could find himself in the position of wartime leaders who were abruptly discarded when the war was over. President George H.W. Bush went from a 90 percent approval rating after the Gulf War to ignominious defeat by a newcomer, Bill Clinton, in 1992. Even Britain’s Winston Churchill, perhaps the greatest leader of World War II, was shocked when in late July 1945 he lost in a landslide to the Labour Party. This was only three months after Nazi Germany’s surrender, when Churchill’s approval rating had been about 80 percent.

Trump’s approval rating, of course, has never gotten higher than the mid-40s. So portraying himself as the indispensable leader may be his only hope. “Wartime presidents do often win,” said David Greenberg, a historian at Rutgers University. “Lincoln was expected to lose basically until [Gen. William Tecumseh] Sherman took Atlanta; FDR won in 1940 and 1944 but he was FDR. So, yeah, it’s imaginable Trump wins—God help us.” 

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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