As soon as President Donald Trump was released from the hospital after being treated for the coronavirus, he and his allies began counting down the days until he could return to the campaign trail. By reviving his beloved rallies, they thought, he could both prove to voters that he was healthy enough to be reelected and zero in on Joe Biden’s vulnerabilities.
That is not what has happened.
In the week since he restarted in-person campaigning, Trump has continued to prove he is his own biggest impediment by drawing more attention to himself each day than to Biden.
The president is blurting out snippets of his inner monologue by musing about how embarrassing it would be to lose to Biden — and how he would never return to whatever state he happens to be in if its voters do not help reelect him.
He is highlighting his difficulties with key constituencies, like women and older voters, by wondering out loud why they have forsaken him, rather than offering a message to bring more of them back into his camp.
And perhaps most damaging, to him and other Republicans on the ballot, he is further alienating these voters and others by continuing to minimize the pandemic and attacking women in positions of power.
A new low point came Saturday, when Trump held a rally in Muskegon, Michigan, where he demanded that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reopen the state and then said “lock them all up” after his supporters chanted “lock her up!”
It was a stunningly reckless comment from a president whose own FBI this month arrested 14 men who it said had been plotting to kidnap Whitmer, a Democrat, and were captured on video with an array of weapons allegedly planning the crime. Trump has assailed Whitmer for months, disregarding her solid approval ratings with independent voters and women, two groups he is purportedly trying to court.
Michigan Republicans, already struggling to avoid an electoral debacle in a state that has been returning to its Democratic roots in elections since Trump’s narrow victory in 2016, were again forced to answer for the president’s penchant for targeting high-profile women there.
“She was literally just targeted,” Lee Chatfield, speaker of the Michigan House and a leading state Republican, said of Whitmer. “Let’s debate differences. Let’s win elections. But not that.”
In a sign of how reluctant Republicans are to criticize Trump, though, Chatfield lamented the audience’s chant but noted that the president himself had not repeated “lock her up” (ignoring that he did say “lock them all up” in response to the audience).
Later, Chatfield and other Republicans seized on an “8645” pin that was visible during an appearance by Whitmer on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, apparently a reference to “86-ing,” or ejecting, the 45th president, Trump. Some Republicans claimed that the term “86” had a more violent intent, and Chatfield tweeted that by displaying the pin, Whitmer had “encouraged more hate.”
The condemnation of the pin, though, only illustrated how eager Republicans are to find anything, no matter how far a stretch, to obscure attention from Trump’s language.
A few hours after his appearance in Michigan, Trump went to Janesville, Wisconsin, and similarly showed no hint of sensitivity to local circumstances. As he did with Whitmer, he demanded that the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers, reopen Wisconsin and proclaimed that the country is “rounding the corner” on the virus — never mind that Wisconsin is experiencing a coronavirus spike and hit a record high in new cases last week.
Not surprisingly, the subsequent coverage of the president’s swing to the two crucial Midwestern states focused on the virus and his attack on Whitmer, who on “Meet the Press” accused Trump of “inspiring and incentivizing and inciting” the sort of “domestic terrorism” that threatened her.
Trump’s inflammatory style also encourages his own supporters, as was on vivid display in Muskegon when crowd members reprised the 2016 mantra about Hillary Clinton for their own governor, ignoring the alleged kidnapping plot against her.
But it is not just the crowds who seem to be taking their cues from the president.
On Friday, Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, a wealthy former business executive who has a home in affluent Sea Island, Georgia, took the microphone at a Trump rally in Macon, Georgia, and sought to rile up the red-hatted audience. He suggested he did not know how to pronounce the name of Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, with whom he has served in the Senate for more than three years.
“Kamala? Kamala? Kamala-mala-mala?” he said. “I don’t know. Whatever.”
Democrats pounced, Republicans were put on the defensive and Perdue’s opponent, Jon Ossoff, raised more than $1 million in 24 hours.
Trump’s staff has sought to mitigate his self-destructive tendencies. It is clear when he is speaking from a teleprompter at rallies, and as discursive as his speeches are, he will deliver many of his attack lines on Biden as written.
But at nearly every event, the president overwhelms his critique of the former vice president.
With Republicans desperate to reframe the election as a choice on policy differences, Trump, with his rhetorical outbursts, is effectively ensuring that the campaign remains a referendum on his conduct. That is what alarms GOP candidates and strategists, who fear that even the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett is no match for Trump’s daily exercise in self-sabotage.
Returning to South Carolina triumphantly Friday after he shepherded Barrett through her Judiciary Committee hearings, Sen. Lindsey Graham held a rally-cum-news-conference that amounted to a victory lap. Locked in an unexpectedly close race for reelection against a Democrat, Jaime Harrison, who is raising record-breaking sums of money, Graham said he thought Trump would help him in the conservative-leaning state.
But as he stepped into an SUV to leave, he acknowledged the undeniable.
“He can be a handful,” Graham said of Trump. “He can get in the way of his own success.”
A number of senior Republican strategists believe the president’s behavior will all but assure his own defeat and is likely to hand Democrats control of the Senate. And every time he criticizes a Republican lawmaker — as he did last week with Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Susan Collins of Maine — they worry it will compound their losses.
But with just over two weeks until the election, a number of party leaders have given up trying to nudge Trump toward better behavior. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who is facing an unusually competitive reelection race in part because of Trump’s divisiveness, said it was not worth trying — and reached for an evocative comparison.