Are we underestimating Trump again?
Although the 2020 presidential election is more than a year away, Donald Trump appears a better prepared and far more formidable candidate than he did in 2016—or compared to many of his current rivals. Those who are appalled by the daily shredding of the Constitution and by the degradation of basic standards of human decency may find it inconceivable that a president such as Trump could win a second term. But in truth, he is leaving no stone unturned in his relentless quest to remain in power for four more years—and we ignore his proximity to victory at our peril.
Trump has made no attempt to adhere to ethical boundaries on separating his office from his reelection campaign. Last week’s Fourth of July spectacle was a perfect example, as he spent millions of taxpayer dollars to display military tanks and flyovers in Washington, D.C., in order to impress his political donors and reward them with free VIP tickets. Donations have been pouring into Trump’s reelection coffers, with $30 million raised in the first quarter of this year alone. His goal for the entire campaign is the unimaginably large figure of $1 billion.
Trump has also maintained a single-minded focus on hammering on the one issue that appears to motivate his voting base the most: immigration. His determination to place a question about citizenship on the 2020 Censussends a strong message to his supporters that he will not even let a Supreme Court ruling get in the way of undermining immigrant rights. The fear his actions are likely inspiring in vulnerable communities—regardless of the final outcome of the census question—is a victory for the Republican Party. The GOP is aiming to weaken, using the census strategy, Democrats’ Congressional representation in districts that typically vote blue. And so, through his pursuit of the citizenship question, Trump rewards both his voters and his party.
Trump is taking no chances, understanding that even with high turnout among his supporters he may not have enough votes to win reelection. That explains his bizarre 45-minute speech on “America’s Environmental Leadership” last Monday. The New York Times explained that “While the numbers showed that Mr. Trump was ‘never going to get’ the type of voter who feels passionately about tackling climate change, a senior administration official who reviewed the polling said there were moderate voters who liked the president’s economic policies and ‘just want to know that he’s being responsible’ on environmental issues.”
Of course, Trump made up facts from whole cloth, as he is wont to do. He took credit for some of President Obama’s achievements and claimed that he was in favor of stringent regulations to keep our air and water clean. Trump has successfully shown time and again that reality seems to matter little to his base. All that matters is that people believe what he wants them to believe, and his lie-filled speech on the environment may be all that Trump needs to convince his voters that he is an environmental leader.
Most terrifying for those who cannot fathom another four years of this nightmarish presidency ought to be Trump’s advertising and fundraising strategy. His campaign has been incredibly adept at creating a sense of urgency, using lies, exaggeration and propaganda to marshal support and raise immense amounts of money, especially on social media platforms. The investigative outlet Axios found that Trump is spending 44% of his Facebook advertising campaign on voters 65 and older, specifically using polarizing language on the issue of immigration. An election expert told Axios, “The one thing the Trump campaign has proven time and again is that they follow the results and optimize for outcomes and not the general consensus.”
Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, is a master digital marketer and has been boasting about how “The president could beat anybody. … The momentum behind this president right now is like nothing that history has ever seen.” Vice media showcased one example of Parscale’s plan. In June, Trump’s reelection campaign launched targeted ads commemorating the president’s birthday and encouraged supporters to sign birthday cards to him using a sense of urgency to draw them in. “HURRY! President Trump’s birthday is TOMORROW!” said one Facebook ad. Social media users were told, “He’ll read the name of every supporter who signs his card when we present it to him on his birthday. Will he see your name?” Vice explained that those who “signed” the cards had “offered gobs of contact information to help the president’s re-election effort build out voter lists that will be crucial to raising money.”
Additionally, Vice noted, “Imposing an arbitrary deadline for supporters to act, the birthday ads have been essential to a digitally savvy Trump campaign that strategists say has built out a sizable early lead over Democrats in collecting voter data.”
Using the president’s birthday as a data-gathering tool for voter outreach was so successful that several Trump family birthdays were deployed for the cause. Melania Trump’s birthday was the focus of a similar ad campaign specifically designed to draw in women, which the watchdog group Media Matters for America claims violated Facebook’s own policies.
Parscale explained that his strategy also includes getting Trump supporters to donate money to the campaign early via social media. That act of donating, in turn, allows the campaign to track in great detail who the donors are and how to mobilize them at election time. Pascarele said on Fox News, “Nothing is stronger for President Trump than to know it’s a voter than a donation today. …We model off that data, and then we find them later. That’s very helpful to have all these donations so early.”
Trump is not acting alone. The Guardian recently reported that right-wing forces including media outlets are using “untraceable ads” on Facebook to help reelect Trump in 2020 and promote a right-wing political agenda. The ads—like many similar efforts from these sources—rely heavily on exaggeration, fearmongering and sometimes outright lies. It is not clear who exactly is using this method to herald Trump, but because it is untraceable and easy, virtually anyone can have a large impact for a modest sum of money.
Trump’s reelection campaign is also adeptly training an “army of volunteers” to be his surrogates all around the country in preparation for November 2020. Thousands of training sessions are being organized and held nationwide by the Republican National Committee and Trump’s campaign. The major difference between 2016 and 2020, as per NPR’s report on the topic, is that “In 2016, the Trump campaign didn’t gain access to the RNC’s data and volunteer operations until after he secured the nomination midway through 2016. While it had been an uncomfortable marriage then, this time around, the Republican party and the Trump campaign are essentially one and the same and they are working to build an army of volunteers.”
A new Washington Post/ABC News poll found Trump at an 44% approval rating—his highest since his tenure began. This is likely because people feel optimistic about the state of the economy—possibly because Trump constantly claims in the face of counterevidence that the U.S. has never had a stronger economy. Despite the fact that 65% of respondents do not consider Trump “presidential,” some predict that this poll indicates a clear path to reelection victory for the president.
Regardless of who is pushing for Trump’s reelection or how, progressives and liberals have to accept the ugly fact that a sizable portion of America’s population is susceptible to his propaganda because they back the president’s xenophobic, anti-immigrant, racist, sexist, homophobic, corporatist, war-mongering agenda—even if they don’t publicly articulate it.
Trump won in 2016 because of a variety of factors, not the least of which being that many of us deeply underestimated him and the support he garners. If Trump wins in 2020 it may well be the worst sort of déjà vu.