Down in the polls and short on cash, President Donald Trump and his team are ramping up their attacks on debate organizers, journalists and social media platforms in a bid to cast the final days of the 2020 race as “rigged” and “biased” against them.
It’s a combative strategy of attacking pundits and political arbiters drawn from the 2016 campaign, when Trump first presented himself as an outsider eager to disrupt national politics and the mores of Washington.
In 2020, Trump’s working-the-refs strategy is being deployed just as forcefully to target specific issues or people instead of the establishment at large. It’s an effort to reframe poor polls and an onslaught of critical advertising, while simultaneously keeping attention away from top-of-mind issues like the coronavirus and a still-struggling economy.
“You always work the referees. That is politics,” said Bryan Lanza, who served as deputy communications director on Trump’s 2016 campaign. “It also helps that the refs have given the president and his team significant ammunition to question their credibility.”
Questioning credibility and facts of any situation has been the hallmark of Trump’s political ascent and his time in the White House. Now, in the closing stretch of his second presidential bid, he is leaning heavily on his accumulated list of grievances to excite his base and woo new voters instead of presenting concrete ideas for a second term or a more optimistic take for the next four years.
While other presidents like Richard Nixon attacked the media with gusto, historians say Trump’s wide-ranging attacks two weeks before an election are unprecedented.
“He is trying to weaken confidence in the referees — undermining confidence in the outcome to possibly set up a challenge or justify his loss,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University who specializes in American political history. “The urgency is greater now that he is having trouble undercutting how people perceive his opponent.”
Critics argue this strategy makes the election all about Trump.
In 2016, Trump “was speaking to other people’s grievances,” said David Axelrod, chief strategist of both of Barack Obama’s winning presidential campaigns. “At this point, it seems more like he is disgorging his own. That is a substantively different and less effective way to win an election.”
Trump aides, allies and advisers hope the ongoing attacks motivate Trump supporters to go to the polls. Aides argue Trump still holds sway over what they like to call a “shadow” or “silent majority” of support in this country, citing internal data that his rallies attract people who did not vote in 2016 or do not consider themselves Republicans.