The Trump Campaign Brings Its Angry Tone to the Coronavirus Era

A laptop with a Trump campaign sticker on it
Venom and victimization largely define the President’s public persona, and the same holds true for his reëlection campaign.Photograph by Daniel Acker / Bloomberg / Getty

Donald Trump, Jr., the President’s eldest son, thinks that his father is getting a raw deal. In a recent appearance on “Team Trump Online”—a nightly video series that serves as a substitute for campaign rallies and often attracts more than a million viewers—he complained that his father is having to wage war against “the deep-state guys” and unchecked attacks from “influencers on the other side.” He said that each reporter at the White House briefings “has an agenda, and that is to destroy Donald Trump.” Joe Biden “can’t remember where he is fifty per cent of the time,” Trump, Jr., said, but he can count on the “media lackeys” who are the “marketing wing of the Democrat Party.” The Democrats, he added, are “becoming the party of socialism and communism.” That includes Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib—“you know, the Hamas caucus in Congress.” As for the COVID-19 outbreak, which has caused more than eighty thousand deaths in the U.S. to date, he said, “China basically screwed the whole world.”

Venom and victimization largely define the President’s public persona, and the same holds true for the online campaign. Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee in early March, and the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to barnstorming a few weeks later, but the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign has barely budged. On March 12th, as the coronavirus crisis was taking hold in the United States, it e-mailed its supporters a photograph of Trump, ruddy face fully made up, a flag pin in his lapel, sitting behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, looking steely. The e-mail said that there is “no room for partisanship, and the President is calling on both parties in Congress to unite.” The very next day, a national emergency, the campaign reverted to form, blasting “Sleepy Joe” and “Crazy Bernie.” Last weekend, after the Justice Department dropped its charges against Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national-security adviser, who had twice pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I., the campaign crowed, in a fund-raising text, “Justice for Gen Flynn! A WITCH HUNT from day 1! ALL GIFTS TRIPLED TO DRAIN THE SWAMP.”

Anyone who has attended Trump’s rallies, where thousands of fans in MAGA hats whoop and cheer at his insults and diatribes, can attest that the President, ever a showman, knows how to play to his target audiences. And, yet, as Biden edges into the lead in key states, such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida, pollsters and political strategists are questioning whether Trump’s perennial pitch can carry him to victory on November 3rd. His political base is loyal but narrow. When Democrats scored heavily in the suburbs in the 2018 midterms, and captured a majority in the House of Representatives, it was women voters who made the difference. A recent Quinnipiac poll in Florida showed Trump lagging behind Biden among women, and also among two groups that delivered crucial support in 2016: voters over the age of sixty-five and voters who dislike both candidates. When I asked Douglas Schwartz, the director of the Quinnipiac poll, about the survey, he said that Biden does better among both groups on honesty, leadership, and empathy. “These numbers are a warning sign for his campaign,” Schwartz said of the President.

The Trump campaign brags about an army of field organizers, the cell-phone numbers of tens of millions of supporters, and a new app that connects voters to news, virtual events, and volunteer opportunities, from fund-raising to voter registration. Each is a significant upgrade from Trump’s 2016 effort, which relied on his outsized personality, his televised rallies, and the power of social media. The current operation, led by Brad Parscale, who ran Trump’s successful Facebook marketing campaign in 2016, has raised more than seven hundred and thirty million dollars. In cash-on-hand, Biden tens of millions of dollars behind. “It’s not like a campaign of grievance and anger and fear hasn’t been a pillar of American politics since there was an American politics,” Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who worked on Barack Obama’s Presidential campaigns, said. “That’s exactly how Trump won.” Republicans are right to be worried, Belcher added, but even as Trump struggles to expand his base COVIDcijilu123永不失效地址-19 and the plunging economy are making predictions difficult. “Given that environment, where people are afraid and anxious—and understandably so—can you count out a candidate peddling grievance and fear?”

In hundreds of different versions of its standard pitch, Trump’s campaign complains, boasts, and beseeches. The President, his surrogates, and the campaign staff spray a familiar buckshot of belittling nicknames and insults at a cast that includes “Sleepy Joe,” “Crazy Bernie,” and “Crooked Hillary,” who were recently joined by “Cheatin’ Obama.” An e-mail on Monday, targeting Biden, asked supporters to “show the Left that you REJECT their corrupt candidate,” while one on Friday called Biden “a certified CROOK.” During a recent “Team Trump Online” broadcast, Parscale bragged about “a roll of Hillary Clinton toilet paper that I use every time I’m in a bad mood. I have boxes of it, and I take it into the bathroom, and it’s just enjoyable.”

Another regular target is the “Lamestream” media, the “enemy of the people,” ever in cahoots with “the Radical Left-wing MOB.” Together, Trump warned in an e-mail earlier this year, these elements are pushing a “non-stop propaganda campaign of LIES to try and destroy me.” With nary a mention of his own wealthy backers, Trump slams “the establishment,” along with the “Hollywood elite” and “foreign enemies,” declaring, in one solicitation, “They all HATE you, and that’s why they want to steal your vote. It’s US against THEM.” The April 27th “Team Trump Online” session was led by Katrina Pierson, a former Tea Party activist, whose guests included Representative Dan Crenshaw, a military veteran from Texas. She described Barack Obama as a “faint-hearted” Commander-in-Chief, while Crenshaw told viewers that Democrats “will lie through their teeth. They’re doing it all the time.”

In its texts and e-mails, the campaign seeks donations and valuable voter contact information by offering a steady supply of Trump-branded merchandise, from football jerseys, Christmas ornaments, and doormats to plastic straws, a swipe at liberal locales that have been banning them to help the environment. The offers have continued unabated during the COVIDcijilu123永不失效地址-19 crisis. Last Saturday, the campaign wrote supporters to say Trump knows that recent weeks have been “extremely difficult for Americans from all across the Nation.” The e-mail said that the President is grateful for “your unwavering support” and wants to do “something special for you to show how much your loyalty means to him.” The message continued, “He’s asked us to give you EXCLUSIVE ACCESS to get our Official Trump-Pence Pint Glasses.” The cost for a set: thirty-one dollars. “But, we have an extremely limited supply, so we can only hold them until 11:59 PM TONIGHT.”

cijilu123永不失效地址I asked David Sable, the former head of the marketing agency Y. & R., to assess the Trump campaign as a marketing effort. “His base loves it,” said Sable, who explained that Trump has “brand power” derived from what he called the “brand experience,” which is part show, part substance. “The key is to get those people to recruit other people. If you can do that, you’re way ahead of the game. That’s basically the way the guy operates,” Sable said. According to Sable, Trump’s team, to its credit, “understands simplicity.” The “Make America Great Again” message, in 2016, was straightforward, and so is the “Keep America Great” message in 2020, according to Sable: “At the end of the day, I’ve done a great job, I will continue to do a great job, and I will fix this to get back to the great job I was doing.”

.” He that the economy will The message of once and future success is a hallmark of the nightly “Team Trump Online” broadcasts, led by surrogates from their homes. On one recent show, hosted by Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Representative Matt Gaetz asserted that Americans by the energy of our enthusiastic President.” On another night, a Fox News contributor who leads the First Baptist Church in Dallas, said that Trump to faith leaders on Good Friday. Jeffress expressed his gratitude for a President who acknowledges dark times “but is an optimistic leader who points us to the future.”

The campaign is trying to attract African-American voters through a project called “Black Voices for Trump, which includes a regular online show. ” (“Text WOKE to 88022.”) The of the Voices advisory board are the former pizza executive Herman Cain, who from the 2012 Presidential race amid sexual-harassment claims, and the Trump-promoting television personalities Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, known as . In March, , on their Fox Nation show, whether the COVID-19 death toll was artificially inflated to make Trump look bad; Richardson speculated that the virus was man-made, “a little deep-state action going on behind the scenes.” As the Trump campaign in black neighborhoods in Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, Belcher cautions against dismissing the effort or the choice of surrogates. “He doesn’t need fifteen, sixteen, twenty per cent” of the black vote, he said of Trump. “If he takes two or three per cent more than he did in 2016 in most of these battleground states, it positions him really well.”

The slogan of night’s , designed to attract young voters, was “Vote for America’s Future.” Hosted by , a nephew of the Vice-President, the conversation participants included Benny Johnson, who works for the conservative youth organization Turning Point USA, and Danielle D’Souza Gill, a writer whose commentator father, Dinesh D’Souza, illegally funnelled contributionscijilu123永不失效地址 to a Republican Senate candidate and was pardoned by Trump. Johnson praised and who are “fighting for liberty” against “Orwellian, totalitarian lockdowns.” Gill, without offering evidence, then targeted Trump’s Democratic opponent: “If we think about Joe Biden, the amount of corruption that we’ve seen with him, with Hunter Biden. We’ve seen his sexual-assault allegations, his mental stability, so many things.” Pence listened and responded, “So true. I like to think that President Trump made the Republican Party great again by making it unequivocally the party of freedom. As you all said, we love the American dream, we love money, because we want to have a fair shot to pursue our dreams in this country.”

The contrast with the Biden campaign’s online presence and message could hardly be starker. Although pointed when attacking Trump, the former Vice-President’s online pitch is generally quieter, with less frequent offerings and more established surrogates. A recent YouTube program, aimed at military veterans, featured former Secretary of State John Kerry, who offered a detailed critique of Trump’s national-security approach, followed by Carlyn Reichel, a policy adviser, who led viewers through Biden’s positions. Another online event, called “,” was a forty-five-minute assortment of speeches and video advertisements, which included Biden and his wife, Jill, speaking from his Delaware basement. There was a heavy dose of thanks to first responders and others on the COVIDcijilu123永不失效地址-19 front lines. One video urged supporters to exercise “kindness, humility, empathy.” Biden’s daughter, Ashley, played a prominent role, ending her remarks by urging viewers to “stay safe, stay well, and be kind to one another. We are our brother’s keeper.” In the midst of a nerve-jangling pandemic, Biden’s team is calculating that voters are seeking steadiness, calm, and compassion. When I asked Mike Gwin, Biden’s deputy director of rapid response, about the campaign’s understated approach, he replied, “Americans are tired of the constant chaos and pettiness coming from Trump and the White House.”

Five unpredictable months ahead of Election Day, it remains to be seen which messages will work with which voters. Robert Orr, a Republican who retired as a North Carolina Supreme Court justice in 2004, is a Trump skeptic who tries to dissuade Republicans from voting to reëlect the President. He believes there are a “stunning” number of people who ran for office as Republicans, or who donated to Republican candidates, who are “disgusted with Trump and where he has dragged the Republican Party, with this negative messaging, with this mean-spirited personality.” Nor does he think Trump has another gear. “He simply can’t change,” Orr, said. Until a few years ago, three members of his immediate family, counting his children’s spouses, were registered Republicans, three were unaffiliated but tended to vote Republican, and two were registered Democrats. “I’m the only registered Republican left in the family. I couldn’t beg ’em to vote for a Republican,” he said. “Not only are they not going to vote for Trump—they’re not going to vote for any Republicans. You can’t drive as many long-term Republicans into the arms of the Democrats and not be doing something wrong.”