US President Donald Trump will address searing anger over racism and police brutality during a trip to Texas on Thursday, but his main focus is rapidly shifting to a more personal problem – his troubled reelection campaign.
The Republican has struggled to find the right tone to address the explosion of protests against years of police abuses and what many African-American leaders, and others, say is systemic racism.
That crisis, coupled with the economic devastation of the COVID-19 shutdown – and the fact that the pandemic continues to kill about 1,000 people a day – has left the country crying out for healing.
Trump, whose political style is built largely on fierce division and exciting his right-wing base, is due to address those national anxieties when he holds a roundtable meeting in Dallas.
The theme announced by the White House – “Transition to Greatness: Restoring, Rebuilding, and Renewing” – promotes the image of Trump as an optimistic, can-do businessman president.
But with anger in the streets, nervousness across the economic landscape, and fear of the coronavirus lingering everywhere, living up to it will be a tall order.
Critics say he is incapable, pointing to the contrast between shows of empathy from previous presidents during crises and Trump’s instinct for fighting and insulting foes, even in the midst of calamity.
“For weeks we’ve seen President Trump run away from a meaningful conversation on systemic racism and police brutality. Instead, he’s further divided our country,” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Thursday.
“Today’s trip to Texas won’t change any of that. President Trump is more interested in photo-ops than offering a healing voice as our nation mourns.”
With his poll numbers underwater five months ahead of election day, Trump seems unlikely to change tack.
Despite the extraordinary turmoil, his base remains loyal and he has made clear his priority is getting back on the campaign trail.
Immediately after his remarks in Dallas, the president heads to his first campaign fundraiser since the COVID-19 lockdown began – a $580,600 per couple event. Then he flies to his golf course resort in New Jersey for the weekend, another post-COVID first.
Next Friday, he will restart his mothballed series of rallies – raucous, often two-hour love fests between Trump the entertainer-in-chief and thousands of his most loyal supporters – with an event in Oklahoma.
Hitting the trail
The choice of Texas for Thursday’s trip is notable because this has been a Republican state for decades but things are changing. Trump won narrowly in 2016 and a Quinnipiac poll last week put him only one percentage point ahead of Biden.
In 2016, polls and politics watchers in general got it wrong about Trump, who ran a chaotic campaign against the ultra-professional Hillary Clinton yet still scored a famous electoral college win.
This has left many election watchers gun-shy. Even so, current polls make grim reading for the Republican.
The FiveThirtyEight.com average shows Trump’s approval rating at just 41 percent, having taken a big hit from his handling of the COVID-19 and race crises.
The realclearpolitics.com average for a presidential election match-up puts Biden at 49.8 to Trump’s 41.7.
Worse for Trump – given his hope of repeating his electoral college win, even if losing the overall popular vote – Biden leads in almost every swing state.