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Is Trump’s Brand Compatible with Incumbency?

June 19, 2019
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(MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Midway through his rollicking 2020 campaign kickoff event Tuesday night in Orlando, President Trump made a sudden digression from his ordinary boilerplate—which consists of wild boasting about his administration’s unequaled accomplishments commingled with breathless denunciations of his foes—to chew over a question that’s been bothering him: Should he keep rolling with the slogan he rode to the White House in 2016, or is it time to rebrand?

“You know, we have a big decision to make,” Trump told the throng. “You know what I’m going to say. We have to come up with a theme for the new campaign, right? Is it going to be Make America Great Again—which is probably and possibly the greatest theme in the history of politics, I think? Make America Great Again! MAGA country, right? MAGA! MAGA! MAGA Country! We’re in MAGA country, that I can tell you.

“But you know, today we had a massive day on the stock market. A lot of things are happening . . . So now I say we’ve made America great again. But how do you give up the number one, call it theme, logo, statement, in the history of politics, for a new one? But, you know, there’s a new one that really works. And that’s called Keep America Great. Keep America Great! In other words, Make America Great Again, well, we’ve really done it . . . So I’m gonna ask you to vote on it. I’m gonna go Make America Great Again, then Keep America Great. Let me just hear by your cheers what you like.”

Judging by their enormous cheers, the crowd was perfectly happy to go either way. But Trump remained pensive: “In all fairness, Make America Great, the greatest of all time. I really believe that. The greatest of all time. How do you give up the greatest of all time with a new theme? Because you know what’s gonna happen? If I do it with a new theme, I give up the greatest of all time, and if I lose, people are going to say, what a mistake that was!”

Amid the bloviating, it was a rare moment of introspection for Trump—who, after all, can’t be faulted on his bad branding instincts. Because the truth is that Keep America Great is an ill-suited rhetorical platform for an incumbent who has never bothered to develop his politics beyond what was required to seize the throne as an iconoclastic outsider. An incumbent who, deep down, would rather not be running as an incumbent at all.

As anyone who has been paying attention to Washington for the past two years could tell you, the executive branch is essentially headed by two Donald Trumps. There is the Donald Trump who must do the actual work of presidenting, whatever is required of him in a given day: Signing bills, reading clipped statements, participating in state visits, and generally doing the work of preserving a healthy nation.

But Trump has never abandoned his other role, the one he slips into pretty much whenever he’s given a little time to himself: the role of Donald Trump the pundit, the savage, unbridled political commentator who often speaks, confusingly, as though he does not already call most of the shots in the most powerful government in the world.

This is the version of Donald Trump that shows up most days on Twitter: railing against his own underlings for supposed acts of insubordination or poor policy decisions, or against his opponents for stymying the golden age he would otherwise be able to usher in. It is the Trump that shows up at rallies like the one on Tuesday: spending less time denouncing potential 2020 opponents than relitigating old hangups from 2016, going on and on about how “Crooked Hillary” Clinton “destroyed evidence, deleted and acid-washed 33,000 emails, exposed classified information and turned the State Department into a pay-for-play cash machine.” (The audience humored him with a rousing chorus of “Lock Her Up,” a request that makes less and less sense the longer Trump runs the Justice Department without doing any such thing.)

Over and over again, President Trump makes it clear where he is most politically comfortable: Not in actually delivering on his sales pitches, which are after all nearly always sweeping, gaudy, and unattainable, but in simply perpetuating the act of spellbinding his fans with the pitch itself.

Which underscores the problem with “Keep America Great”: It only works if Trump’s supporters believe he has accomplished everything he set out to accomplish for them. And surely that’s not the case. Where is The Wall? Why is she not locked up? How is it that he’s still making more or less the same stump speech he’s been making for four years? It doesn’t actually make sense.

Trump’s best hope is in convincing his people that those promises—The Wall, the return of U.S. manufacturing, the end of illegal immigration—would have been here by now, if not for the deplorable interference of the president’s powerful enemies. But that the times are changing, and if they’ll just give him four more years then any day now those promises will finally come true.

It’s a strong pitch, but one that won’t work forever. Even President Trump knows he has to turn the corner to “Keep America Great” eventually. But who can blame him if he’s a little apprehensive about doing it today?

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.