As mainstream media outlets raised questions Tuesday about the wisdom of President Trump labeling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” from the lectern at the United Nations, the president’s message-making sped into gear.
“Trump supporters around the country should take pride in President Trump’s strong and principled speech before the world’s leaders at the United Nations today where he expressed profound and unwavering America First principles,” Michael S. Glassner, the executive director of Trump’s reelection organization, said in an email blasted out shortly after Trump’s U.N. address.
“The President described a new vision, putting Americans first…and condemning those who support rogue nations and terrorists.”
For two weeks Trump has been in a well-publicized dalliance with Democrats, cutting deals on the federal budget and debt ceiling and seeking an agreement on immigrants who entered the country illegally as young children. At the same time, he has sought to blunt any retribution from his supporters by flooding them with messages focused on why they backed him in the first place.
Tuesday’s speech at the U.N. offered the highest-profile example of how the administration has sought to reassure the president’s supporters, showcasing parts of Trump’s speech that returned to his campaign themes and language.
In the speech, Trump castigated the Iran nuclear deal as “one of the worst” ever made and pledged to stop “radical Islamic terrorism.” He cast immigration and global trade deals as injurious to Americans. He made clear his presidency’s organizing principle remained the one that animated his campaign.
“Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens, to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights and to defend their values,” he told foreign leaders and a national audience. “As president of the United States I will always put America first.”
Every president is continuously defining himself—or, when things are off track, attempting to redefine himself. For Trump, those efforts are both necessary and, for the last two weeks, simultaneous.
The outreach to Democrats whom the president had long disparaged came after nearly eight months of working only with Republicans. That shift potentially could open the way for Trump to appeal to a new batch of voters, but it also risked his connection to those who had sustained him during a period in which his support has been mired in the mid- to upper-30s range.
To keep those supporters on board, Trump and his allies have relied on a daily drumbeat of news about the president’s goals, achievements and desires, communicating in ways that bypass commentary by Democrats or the media.
Trump’s core supporters detest Democratic leaders and, in part due to the president’s constant disparagements, don’t trust the media’s account of his tenure. That has heightened the power of the president’s own social media and communication tools, which include nearly 39 million Twitter followers and nearly 23 million followers on Facebook.
His messages often find an echo on conservative news sites: On Tuesday the Breitbart media website, whose chief executive Stephen K. Bannon recently served as Trump’s chief strategist, headlined its story “Trump threatens to ‘totally destroy NKorea at U.N.: ‘Rocket Man Is on a Suicide Mission.’ ” On Fox News’ website—the most popular site for Trump voters, polls have shown—a headline offered: “Sticking to script, Trump sticks it to the UN.”
For Trump’s supporters, those headlines evoked one of his strengths, the belief that he speaks their language and is willing to disrupt the establishment anywhere, even in a stronghold such as the United Nations. His desire to thwart convention has been standard in Trump’s favorite communications tool, Twitter, where his offerings over the last two weeks read like mini-drafts of his speech.
He has emphasized issues he knows are important to his followers, who favor a stronger military and who, 2016 presidential exit polls found, were more worried about terrorism than other candidates’ voters.
Repeatedly, Trump has reminded his Twitter followers that he has worked to expand the military. (Much of his effort remains in the pipeline, a point he glosses over.)
“Military and economy are getting stronger by the day and our enemies know it,” he tweeted Sunday.
Trump also asserted that “loser terrorists”—terminology he repeated in the U.N. speech—should be dealt with “in a much tougher manner.”
Trump has also repeatedly heralded his administration’s efforts to help victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. That emphasizes to those supporters who may not relish Trump’s more bellicose statements that his administration is demonstrating competence — every presidency’s desired baseline.
But the uplift is cut by a stream of animosity toward others, whether the leader of North Korea or Trump’s nemesis Hillary Clinton. The “Rocket Man” moniker for Kim that was used at the United Nations first surfaced in a Sunday tweet.
That same day, Trump posted a video made to look like he’d hit a golf ball that knocked over Clinton. The tweet prompted predictable outrage from Democrats, which likely was the reason for posting it in the first place. On Wednesday, he was back to citing his campaign nickname for her: “Crooked Hillary.”
Taken together, Trump’s communication efforts serve to rally supporters to a common cause or, at least, opposition to common enemies. And there is some suggestion his efforts are working: The most recent weekly Gallup poll was one of several that have shown an uptick in his support. It found Trump’s popularity at 38%, still low by the standards of most presidencies, but the highest level since late July.
What Trump has not done, in his messages to supporters or in Tuesday’s speech, is to present detailed solutions to the problems he describes.
Trump did not come into the presidency on the strength of rock-ribbed beliefs; indeed on Tuesday he proudly asserted that he was “guided by outcomes, not ideology.” Eight months into his presidency, he often takes multiple sides on the same set of issues, as if offering options or underscoring deal-desiring flexibility.
Last week, a question about whether he favored amnesty for young immigrants drew a characteristic response.
“We’re not looking at amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here,” Trump said. By the standards long held by Republicans, allowing people to stay is the definition of amnesty.
This week it was his view of the U.N. that varied. On Monday, as he left the first day of U.N. meetings, he seemed to dismiss the global organization’s record.
“I think the main message is ‘make the United Nations great.’ Not ‘again,’” he said. “Make the United Nations great.“
The next day, in a lunch after his speech, he was effusive with praise, saying that when it came to solving the world’s problems, “there can be no better forum” than the U.N.
That approach can leave foreign leaders mystified as to which course Trump prefers. Yet such inconsistencies rarely trouble Trump’s loyalists, many of whom are attracted less by ideological practicality than by Trump’s manner and tone. The messages they receive from him help to reinforce their personal connection, crafted in the campaign and maintained still.
Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican National Committee member from California, said Trump supporters “are getting plenty of communication from him and from his surrogates” via Twitter, Facebook, emails and the like.
“It has to do with advancing his agenda in a positive way,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any shortage of communication there.”