Trump's usual method won't work this time (but he's trying it anyway)

Trump has a playbook with one page. Observers keep explaining that the usual tactics won't work, but he's determined to rely on them anyway.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in the Oval Office on March 12, 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in the Oval Office on March 12, 2020.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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By Steve Benen

Reading from a prepared text on Wednesday, Donald Trump told Americans, "We are all in this together. We must put politics aside, stop the partisanship, and unify together as one nation and one family."

It was a pleasant posture that didn't quite last a day. At a White House event about 14 hours later, the president claimed, "If you go back and look at the swine flu and what happened with the swine flu, you'll see how many people died and how actually nothing was done for such a long period of time, as people were dying all over the place. We're doing it the opposite. We're very much ahead of everything." This was the opposite of the truth, though Trump didn't seem to care.

Last night on Twitter, the Republican kept going.

"Sleepy Joe Biden was in charge of the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic which killed thousands of people. The response was one of the worst on record. Our response is one of the best, with fast action of border closing [and] a 78% Approval Rating, the highest on record. His was lowest!"

This morning, he proceeded to publish angry tweets directed at the Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Reserve. In fact, he accused them of putting the United States at a "physiological" disadvantage. (I suppose he meant "psychological," but your guess is as good as mine.)

At this point, we could go phrase by phrase, fact-checking every misguided claim. We could note that the Obama's administration's H1N1 response was very effective; the approval-rating claim he referenced is absurd; and attacking his own CDC during a public-health crisis seems hopelessly misguided.

But for now, let's put aside these relevant details and consider the larger context: Trump needs to operate from a different playbook right now, but he doesn't seem to know how.

The Associated Press had a good report on this yesterday, explaining, "The escalating coronavirus crisis is presenting President Donald Trump with a challenge for which he appears ill-equipped, his favorite political tactics ineffective and his reelection chances in jeopardy."

The New York Times' Peter Baker had a related analysis this week, arguing that the coronavirus outbreak "does not respond to Mr. Trump's favorite instruments of power: It cannot be cowed by Twitter posts, it cannot be shot down by drones, it cannot be overcome by party solidarity, it cannot be overpowered by campaign rally chants."

But therein lies the rub: Donald Trump has a playbook with one page. Confronted with a crisis, he instinctively lashes out. He embraces reactionary whataboutism. He distracts, lies, bluffs, and diverts blame. He keeps all of this going until the next crisis emerges, at which point the president starts the cycle anew.

The viral outbreak is a fundamentally different kind of crisis, but Trump doesn't care. Commentators keep saying the usual tactics won't work, but the president is determined to rely on them anyway.

If he expects these tactics to work, however, he's likely to be disappointed.