fb-pixel
Ground Game

Under Trump, ‘permanent campaign’ takes on a whole new meaning

President Trump at a rally in Nashville on Wednesday.
President Trump at a rally in Nashville on Wednesday.Andrea Morales/Getty Images

Consider it another way that Donald Trump has changed American politics: The once-subtle art of the so-called permanent campaign practiced by the past six US presidents is dead. There is nothing subtle about the ways Trump has campaigned since winning the White House in November. He never stopped campaigning, never stopped raising money, and never stopped attacking his opponents.

Where his predecessors tried to walk a careful line, suggesting that the presidency was above politics, Trump might be the one finally calling a spade a spade.

Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama didn’t file paperwork to run for reelection until April and May of their third year in office. Trump filed the day he was sworn in. Neither Bush nor Obama aired television ads until the election year. Trump’s super PAC has already aired a few of them. And this week, as if there was any doubt what Trump was up to, his supporters could sign up to attend what are officially called campaign rallies in Tennessee and Kentucky via Trump’s campaign website.

All this comes after his “victory tour” — before he was even sworn in — in swing states including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

Advertisement



It has been 40 years since Jimmy Carter’s pollster wrote a memo telling the newly elected president that “governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.”

That memo is largely credited with creating the permanent campaign. Ever since, presidents have consistently traveled the country, raising campaign money for their political parties and building public support for legislative efforts.

Brendan Doherty, a professor at the US Naval Academy and the author of “The Rise of the President’s Permanent Campaign,” says every president since Carter has pushed the envelope, becoming ever more overtly more political.

“But Trump isn’t just adding to the natural progression. This is a quantum leap,” Doherty said.

Advertisement



Gone are the days when President Clinton was criticized for polling nearly everything, including where his family should vacation. At the time, it was seen as egregious.

Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, sees a difference with Trump as well.

“We did have President Obama on the road, selling his initiatives in order to pass them,” Axelrod said. “The difference with President Trump is that at these large rallies, the policies seem almost secondary.”

Indeed, when Trump talks about the size of his Electoral College win or hits Obama as if he is an opponent, the president is still in campaign mode.

“What is really odd is that the election is over, and Trump will be at one of his rallies where the crowd will start saying to lock Hillary up. That campaign is over, but it is still a campaign atmosphere,” said Norman Ornstein, a political expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who also wrote a book on the permanent campaign. “We have just never seen this before.”

There might be consequences. The first is just logistics: By being so explicit, Trump’s campaign may have to reimburse the federal government more for travel. In the past, a president would schedule an official government event at a school or a business and then attend a fund-raiser or campaign with a local candidate. Trump, so far, hasn’t done that — unless he includes a stop at former president Andrew Jackson’s Nashville home as an official act. We don’t have campaign finance reports yet to show how much Trump is paying for his political travel.

Advertisement



The second, and possibly bigger, problem with Trump’s approach is that by being so overtly a candidate he is forcing voters to their partisan roots instead of creating space for Americans to unite behind their president.

“Trump may personally need to hear crowds chant his name for his own reasons, but campaigning like this sets up an us-versus-them dynamic,” Ornstein said. “He might look back and think he could have been better off governing and trying to unite the country.”


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics:http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp.