WASHINGTON — President Trump has brought great disruption to many aspects of his office, but there has been one, unaltered constant: his rallies.
In dozens of venues over the past three years, Trump escaped the confines of Washington — where he faced impeachment, unprecedented turnover within his administration, and fierce criticism from political rivals — to bask in the glow of his supporters and lampoon his enemies. From the playlist down to the insults he lobbed at opponents and the media, there is an unchanging character to the president’s political ritual, which always appeared to leave him recharged while helping divert headlines from whatever crisis trailed in his wake.
But now, the deadly coronavirus, which has upended the daily lives of millions of Americans, puts a temporary end to one of Trump’s favorite routines as well, leaving his campaign to mull digital-only substitutes to the packed rallies that have been declared a public health threat.
That change has shoved the president out of his comfort zone during an election year, and left both his allies and foes wondering how he will cope with the rigors of governing through a crisis without ever hearing the roar of his base. The campaigner-in-chief now faces the 24-seven duties of the commander-in-chief, with no reprieve in sight.
“Psychologically, it will weigh on him since he does not like being in the closed rooms of governance,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “Politically, it will force him to spend most of his time doing something that he is not very good at.”
The abrupt halt of in-person campaigning, which has also affected Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, is particularly jarring for Trump. He filed for reelection on the day he was inaugurated and held his first campaign rally just a few weeks after that, dispensing with past presidents’ tradition of at least pretending for a short while that they weren’t already running for reelection.
Trump genuinely enjoys his rallies, and even embarked on a nine-state “thank you” tour of them just weeks after he won the election, when many politicians would be grateful to have a reprieve from more than a year of non-stop campaigning.
“He loves campaign events,” said Jason Miller, an aide to Trump during his 2016 run. “That’s his ability to connect with real people and get away from some of the politicians and be out there with the men and women around the country.”
Michael Caputo, a former adviser to Trump, said the campaign will now have to think of creative ways to keep Trump interested in whatever digital alternatives to rallying that they come up with. The nearly 100 events he’s held as president also feed a digital treasure trove of data on volunteers and voters that power his campaign.
Sanders and Biden have already experimented with alternative campaign events, with Sanders’ latest online rally featuring a performance by Neil Young, but so far the Trump campaign has not scheduled a digital event featuring the president.
“The president is uniquely energized by these live, in-person events,” Caputo said. “And I think that’ll be part of the challenge for the campaign—to keep the candidate engaged in the digital version of this.”
Democrats believe Trump will suffer from the pause in campaigning, since he often uses rallies to define his political opponents with blistering insults, and appears to enjoy them more than governing in Washington.
“Rallies aren’t just part of his reelection strategy, they’re part of his mental health strategy,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who was an aide to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. “Trump needs crowds of roaring loyalists as his safe space when his ego gets bruised, and the pandemic may take that away.”
More than many of his predecessors, Trump has remained laser-focused on his reelection from the very beginning, and even ended up impeached by the House of Representatives for asking the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden while holding up US aid for the country.
“Every White House is mindful that there’s a campaign that starts the day you’re sworn in, but Trump has put that in overdrive,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist. “He views this differently than anybody has in the past — that this is one giant campaign.”
At first, Trump appeared to try to take his campaign-focused approach to the coronavirus, as it started spreading within the United States. He donned a red “Keep America Great” hat during a press conference at the Centers for Disease Control earlier this month, getting some airtime for his campaign slogan while erroneously claiming that anyone in America who wanted a coronavirus test could get one. He later compared the disease to the seasonal flu on Twitter.
But as US cases and criticism of his leadership piled up, Trump changed his tone. Last week, his campaign cancelled upcoming rallies in Colorado, Nevada, and Wisconsin. Instead of greeting roaring fans in a MAGA hat, he’s facing skeptical reporters in daily press conferences in the White House briefing room, which was previously in such disuse by the administration that reporters had been storing equipment there.
Trump frequently spends his rallies decrying the media’s treatment of him, calling members of the media “Fake News” and “bad people” as the crowd boos the penned-in reporters covering the event. But on Monday, he told reporters he believes their coverage during the crisis has been “very fair.”
“We’ve done a poor job on press relationships," he said during Tuesday’s press conference, while asking for more positive coverage of his own actions, including halting travel from China early on.
Zelizer said it appeared Trump has been forced into a “Rose Garden strategy” for his reelection, trading wild rallies for somber briefings and Oval Office addresses. While past incumbent presidents have chosen to wield the power of the office as a weapon against their general election rival, such a strategy is not a natural fit for Trump.
He once told a roaring crowd in Tampa that “anybody can act presidential,” and then put on a somber tone to mock the way that other politicians talk. His instinct to get a little “wild” with crowds was actually harder than projecting the gravitas of the office, Trump said then. It’s “a lot easier to act presidential than do what I do,” he told his fans.
The coronavirus puts that claim to the test. Last week, Trump gave a botched 10-minute Oval Office address about the coronavirus that required the White House to issue three immediate policy corrections, sending the financial markets reeling. But more recently, the president appears to have adopted a more serious tone, appearing to grasp that how he handles the coronavirus could determine his political future.
Asked on Monday about when he’d be getting back to his rallies, Trump said he hoped the coronavirus would pass through soon enough so he could resume them. His allies predict his fans will be waiting for him when it does.
“If anything, taking a little bit of a break from the rallies will make him even more popular,” Miller predicted. “It’ll make people even more patriotic and energetic and want to get out and celebrate with President Trump after we’ve gotten through this. We’ll have to move away from the basketball arenas to the football stadiums.”