The president as insurgent: Why Trump is pushing protests in Democratic states

It’s beginning to feel like a culture war, like a Tea Party-style backlash against big government.

Except in this case the head of the federal government is cheering it on.

When protestors first took to the streets against what they see as excessively harsh restrictions in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia, President Trump rooted for them in Twitter posts to “LIBERATE” those states -- all of which, by an odd coincidence, have Democratic governors.

It was classic Trump, reverting to his role as a disruptor, hailing those who are taking on the heavy hand of government regulation.

But the president had just spent many days extolling his relationship with the nation’s governors -- even praising the likes of Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom -- saying they’ll be calling the shots and he’ll back them up. (That, of course, was a walkback from last week’s proclamation that he has “total authority” when it comes to reopening the economy.)

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And it also conflicted with Trump’s endorsement of social distancing guidelines, since some (but not all) of the protestors have gathered in close-knit groups, boosting the chance that they could get coronavirus or spread it to others.

The thing is, only journalists worship at the altar of consistency, constantly asking why you-said-X-but-now-you’re-saying-Y. And we all know what Trump thinks about the media (he called CNN correspondent Jeremy Diamond “pathetic” on Sunday, saying “you don’t have the brains with you were born with”).

Trump is a master at sending signals to his supporters, and if that clashes with something else he’s said or done, he knows he can easily dismiss it. He’s told reporters he has no problem with the conduct of the protestors and that some of the state restrictions are too harsh, though stopping short of saying they should be rescinded.

In short, he is generally being critical of blue states, which are the hardest hit (New York, New Jersey, California, Washington) and supportive of red states, some of whose governors are moving to lift lockdowns or never resorted to such restrictions.

Politically, stoking anger among Americans suffering from the economic shutdown probably helps him, even if journalists complain that he’s being inconsistent. Since his poll numbers have slipped a bit, he wants his frustrated voters to know he’s on their side. And there is a lot of pain out there, with 22 million new jobless claims and people who want to work and believe the shutdown has lasted too long.

Trump does best when he’s on offense. That’s why he’s constantly clashing with reporters -- on Sunday he said CNN correspondent Jeremy Diamond was “pathetic” and not using “the brains he was born with” -- and why he’s defunding the WHO and is back to tweeting about Cryin’ Chuck and Crazy Nancy.

One reporter asked Trump if he was encouraging violence, which is totally unfair. But it is fair to ask whether he’s urging potential protestors to violate their states’ stay-at-home orders. The president responded by saying many people are suffering from cabin fever.

The New York Times cites two people close to Trump as saying “they thought the protests could be politically helpful to Mr. Trump, while acknowledging there might be public health risks.”

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The new approach puts him at odds with such Democratic governors as Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, who as it happens is being touted mentioned as a possible Biden running mate, but doesn’t appeal to voters already critical of his management of the crisis. (Whitmer is taking flak for ordering large stories to close off areas meant for carpeting, flooring, furniture, gardening and paint, even as her office notes it doesn’t apply to smaller stores and online sales.)

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll has some telling numbers. The top line is a 49 to 42 lead among registered voters for Joe Biden, but perhaps more important is where people stand on the campaign’s dominant issue.

Just 36 percent of those surveyed say they trust what the president says about the coronavirus, while 52 percent don’t trust him (10 percent were not aware or had no opinion.)

But the warning sign for Biden is that he’s practically off the radar. Some 42 percent said they weren’t aware of his statements on the virus or didn’t have an opinion. Among the rest, 26 percent trust what Biden says and 29 percent do not. That means he’s been largely sidelined during this pandemic.

Trump has a gut instinct for what works in a campaign. There is a lot of pain out there, with 22 million jobs lost in the last month and many families struggling to survive. The president wants those people, and the protestors, to know that he’s on their side. And if that leads to media chatter about mixed messages, so be it.