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As President Donald Trump faces rising disapproval of his coronavirus response, he’s reviving the heated rhetoric that got him elected — blaming China, pointing fingers at global institutions and, especially, cracking down on immigrants.
His latest volley came late Monday in a tweet promising a temporary halt to all immigration into the U.S., even though the coronavirus has already ground travel globally to a halt. It marked a revival of Trump’s signature issue from 2016, when he fired up supporters with vows to build a wall on the southern U.S. border and make Mexico pay for it.
The return to the immigration issue arose seemingly out of nowhere, and coincides with the American economy suddenly souring as the lockdowns across the country cause a record spike in unemployment. That dynamic allows Trump to use immigrants as a target for U.S. job losses.
“I have determined that we cannot jump start the domestic economy if Americans are forced to compete against an artificially enlarged labor pool caused by the introduction of foreign workers,” Trump said in the draft of the executive order still being finalized. “I have determined that the entry of most aliens as permanent or temporary workers in the immediate term would have adverse impacts on the national interest.”
The immigration order is part of a return to his old patterns of criticizing Democratic-led states, attacking global institutions like the World Health Organization and unleashing criticism of China from the daily briefing podium after months of praising its leaders during trade negotiations. And it coincides with a rise in the number of Americans dissatisfied with his handling of the crisis.
“I ran on China and other countries, the way they were ripping us off. They were ripping off our country,” Trump said Sunday.
He began his presidential campaign in a 2015 with a speech assailing Mexican immigrants, making foreigners the target of his ire as he ran on the “Make America Great Again” theme.
The twin crises play right into that theme that he is once again embracing — setting himself up again as the Washington outsider, from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue no less, chafing against the advice of his health and economic advisers, asserting that Democratic governors are reflexively overreaching into the private lives of Americans.
Trump’s slogan for 2020 was “Keep America Great.” But that’s no longer a viable message, with 789,000 Americans sick and more than 22 million people out of work, eviscerating his best campaign argument that he presided over the strongest American economy in decades.
As his approval ratings slump over how he’s handled the virus crisis, Trump has been left to come up with a theme less than seven months before the election. In times of duress, he pivots to his base, which he did Tuesday with the immigration suspension, even though it would exempt seasonal farm workers who are mostly Latino, and others.
“Clearly he needs to throw red meat to the base and clearly how he does that is by bashing China and by saying we’re going to cut off immigration. It is an interesting ploy. I mean there’s not like a lot of people are flooding into America anyway. It’s hard to get a flight,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist. “It’s a good message for him, for his base, because why should we bring in more immigration when we have so many people out of work. I think that that actually works pretty well.”
Feehery said that the strategy enables Trump to excite his base and also puts Democrats on the defensive as it relates to immigration with blue collar workers who might be unemployed.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden is competing for workers like that, holding virtual town halls with first-responders and winning the endorsement of the United Auto Workers. Democrats fervently hope Biden will win back the blue-collar workers who voted for President Barack Obama and then turned to Trump in 2016. Yet that all depends on which candidate those voters believe can steer the country out of the crisis.
Trump’s approval rating in the latest Gallup poll was 43%, down six percentage points from its high in mid-March when the president first introduced social-distancing guidelines.
Survey of Loss
A separate Pew report out Tuesday showed 43% of U.S. adults now say that they or someone in their household has lost their job or had their pay cut because of the pandemic. For lower-income adults it’s even higher, at 52%, underscoring the disproportionate economic impact of Covid-19.
“President Trump’s immigration policy just makes sense as the United States fights the war against the coronavirus,” Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman said in a statement Tuesday. “He has two main goals: to protect the health and safety of Americans and to safeguard the economy. This decision addresses both.”
China, where the virus started, has become a familiar target. At Saturday’s press briefing Trump said his anger at the country would depend on whether it was “a mistake that got out of control, or was it done deliberately?” In January, still confident of his re-election, he praised the efforts of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump also said last week he would halt U.S. funding for the World Health Organization, accusing the United Nations agency of taking Chinese claims about the disease “at face value,” and he compared the WHO to another foil, the World Trade Organization, that he’s argued unfairly helped enrich other countries, like China, at the expense of the U.S., hallmarks of his 2016 campaign message.
Walt Whetsell, a Republican political strategist from South Carolina, said that Trump has a talent for tapping into the sentiment of his strongest supporters. The slumping economy also gives Trump the opportunity to fully reach back into his old campaign playbook, Whetsell said.
“Here’s a guy who won in 2016 with this slogan, he won using the slogan, so you can’t use it again, right? But think about it, he really can now, right? He can go run on Make America Great Again it will be just fine,” Whetsell said.
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