Trump's long journey to rally America – not just his base

The president-elect made the first stop of his 'thank-you' tour Thursday night in Ohio.

Mike Segar/Reuters
President-elect Donald Trump appears at a USA Thank You Tour event at US Bank Arena in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Dec. 1, 2016.

Between the bragging, the promising, and the showmanship, President-elect Donald Trump squeezed into his Ohio voter thank-you speech a few words about uniting a deeply divided America.

They were the kind of words that people who didn’t vote for him – or who fear his presidency – might want to hear.

Some of them were strong statements, such as “We condemn bigotry and prejudice in all of its forms.” Others were a rallying cry to “embrace the one thing that truly unites us ... America.” Speaking in Cincinnati on Thursday night, he rejected identity politics that put Americans into “boxes” and spoke optimistically about finding common ground and ending gridlock in Washington.

But these morsels of unifying reassurance, read mostly from his teleprompter, were few and far between. They lost their way among long off-teleprompter riffs about his amazing campaign upset, his familiar denunciations of the media, and the rowdy crowd’s chants of “Lock her up!” – references to Hillary Clinton, which met with a smile from the president-elect.

That dual aspect of Mr. Trump – trying to unite the country while continually igniting his base in ways that alarm half the nation – are working at cross purposes as Trump nears his presidency, say observers.

“He can fire up his base, but in doing so he won’t unify the country,” says John Pitney, a political professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “Sooner or later he’s got to pick one.”

In 1800s, tours were common

Much has been made of how unusual it is for a president-elect to break away from his transition work to launch a post-election "thank you" tour in battleground states.

In some ways, though, it mimics historic precedent. Newly elected presidents in the 19th -century often made stops in cities on their way to their inauguration in Washington, says former Senate historian Donald Ritchie. Abraham Lincoln took a particularly circuitous train route through upstate New York, giving speeches along the way.

And the fact that Trump feels the need to escape from Trump Tower in Manhattan and breathe the oxygen of voter adulation is not unusual for someone suddenly at the center of power in America. Every president complains of being trapped in “the bubble.” Bill Clinton, who loved retail politics, was chronically late because his handlers couldn’t tear him away from rope lines and his throngs of admirers.

What’s singular about Trump is the ramped-up nature of all of this – launching a campaign-like tour after he’s already won; broadly outlining his “action plan” even while denouncing government leaders – the very people he’ll need to enact his plan – as  “stupid” and failures.

Dealmaking in Washington

Trump insisted that all will be well, that people will be happy, and that “there’s going to be a lot of love in our country,” because he’ll produce results. He’ll repeat deals like the one he pulled off in Indiana, where he picked up the phone and called the top dog at United Technologies to save a Carrier plant from closing. It was CEO-to-CEO. “We’re going to do that all over the country,” he promised.

Again, there’s precedent for this in Washington, where horse-trading has occurred since time immemorial. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson was known for his many phone calls with individuals in Congress to work out deals – famously on civil rights. George Washington scheduled regular dinners with members of Congress, on a rotating basis.

“Everything is a deal,” says Mr. Ritchie, the Senate historian. On the other hand, “the problem with Congress is it isn’t one board of directors or one person to deal with.” It’s designed to operate slowly.

Indeed, Republican senators are already telling their GOP colleagues in the House to exercise a little patience. For the first quarter of the new year, they’ll be tied up with personnel issues – confirming all those cabinet picks, and a new Supreme Court nominee.

Some doubt that Trump will have much leverage over Congress, or that he will be able to pick up the phone and change corporate behavior dramatically.

“He might be able to do it enough times in symbolic ways, which is basically what the Carrier deal was, to create the illusion that he has changed Washington's ways and is making immense progress,” writes Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in an email.

'He needs to listen'

Trump has some significant advantages heading into the presidency, including his reputation as a change agent, his own lack of ideology, and a Congress that is of his own party – as diverging as its members can be. As President Obama pointed out, people want him to succeed because they want the country to succeed.

But to truly do that, he has to unify the country. In Cincinnati on Thursday evening, he focused on a specific kind of unity, “the unity of resentment, the unity of us v. them,” says Mr. Pitney. Instead of being gracious to a candidate who got more votes than he did, he spiked the football.

“If he really wants to be a unifier, he needs to listen – not just invite people to Trump Tower for photo ops, but really listen respectfully to voices across the political spectrum,” Pitney says. 

“It is not yet clear that he is capable of doing that.”

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