Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends. Donald Trump put on what his press secretary called a “campaign event” Tuesday night in Phoenix and, during the rally, made generous use of the future tense, that hallmark of election season: “We will make America the best place in the world to hire, grow, and start a business,” Trump said, “we’re going to do an infrastructure bill,” he continued, and “we will make American great again,” he divined. The president even issued a call to action, telling his thousands of supporters: “This is our opportunity to recapture our dynasty like never before.” No, Trump didn’t forget that 2016 came and went — he’s getting a head start on 2020. And he’s glad, so glad, you could attend.
That campaign is already well underway, despite being three years away. Trump established his reelection committee on his first day in office, and Politico recently reported that its fundraisers, pollsters, and opposition researchers are hard at work. Brendan Doherty, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, isn’t surprised. Doherty, author of The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign, is well acquainted with the phenomenon of the never-ending campaign. He’s found that recent presidents have consistently made more and earlier public appearances in battleground states than their predecessors.
Yet while Trump walks the same path as his own, he’s taken it a step further. Consider: Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton declared their respective reelection bids progressively earlier in their third year in office. Trump did so on day one. That’s an important clue to where his interests lie, and Doherty calls it “a dramatic extension of his predecessors’ behavior.”
And then there are the rallies: There have now been eight in seven months. “It is not unusual for incumbent presidents to have political rallies to whip up their base and try to grow public support,” political scientist Mark Rozell, a dean at George Mason University, tells National Review. And indeed, past presidents also held rallies soon after winning office. In 2009, Obama held rallies to mobilize support for his health-care plan; in 2001, Bush held rallies to do the same with his tax plan; and in 1993, the Clintons held rallies to try and do the same with the president’s wife’s health-care plan. But these rallies were attempts to grow public support for particular policies: Obama, Bush, and Clinton kept things focused on their agendas. In contrast, Rozell says, “Trump’s rallies don’t have a specific policy focus, or any focus at all.”
Tuesday night’s bears that out. Trump’s remarks amounted to a 90-minute digression: from antifa, to his margin of victory in Arizona, to the scourge of fake news, to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, to Foxconn, to MS-13 terrorizing Long Island, to nominal GDP growth. Some of these topics, such as Sheriff Joe and the news media, are symbolic, the kind that burnished his tell-it-like-it-is credentials during the campaign. Others, such as bringing manufacturing back, are policy-oriented: the stuff of governing. But Trump assembles them all in a rhetorical collage. That “erosion of the lines between campaigning and governing,” Doherty tells National Review, is what happens when you try to do both at once.
If you find these rallies unusual, then, that’s because they are. They are, however, also a logical consequence of the actions of previous presidents.
Some also find them unnerving. Impropriety is an unmistakable part of Trump’s political strategy, though. What scares James Clapper excites Laura Ingraham, and, during the election, it was same with their respective audiences. People increasingly watch like-minded shows, read like-minded websites, and associate with like-minded people. In turn, the media have adapted to a changing market, catering to distinct clusters of people. Trump doesn’t have to worry about how his speech might play on the networks; that term, signifying a monolithic media, is obsolete. His rallies are instead “audience-specific,” political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg tells NR, “and he gets terrific coverage on the media that his base pays attention to.” Trump’s campaign delights who it’s supposed to delight, just like it did a year ago.
But if Trump prefers campaigns to governance, he could wind up widening the partisan divide. On Election Night, he vowed to “be president for all the citizens” of the country. A never-ending campaign, with rallies designed to please some and unnerve others, works against that goal. Perhaps the reaction of some of Trump’s opponents to Tuesday night’s rally was ill conceived. Perhaps the rally was, too.