Opinion

Can the Movies Save Trump?

By Ben Koltun
June 2, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

President Donald Trump wants to make movies great again in his bid for four more years. As he waxes poetic over old studio epics like “Gone with the Wind,” the man who once aspired to be a movie mogul is looking to a more biblical epic for re-election amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Move over, Charlton Heston — Trump is looking to cast himself as Moses in a remake of “The Ten Commandments.”

The parallels are easy to see. Trump repeatedly refers to the coronavirus as a “great and powerful Plague.” Trump’s “Let my people go!” moment is in his calls to “liberate” the “great people” who “want their freedom now” under the tyranny of states run by Democratic pharaohs.

One for theatrics, the president is embarking on an American recovery tour, replete with parting of the Red Sea spectacles from the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds to fireworks at Mt. Rushmore. As he says, Americans will rise “from this death and destruction” to become “greater than ever before.” The coup de grace of this “transition to greatness” will be the Q3 gross domestic product growth figure, released five days before the election, that could be the highest on record (never mind the math behind it).

The question is, can Trump adapt a box office smash from 1956 to the ballot box in 2020? And is he the man to produce and star in it?

Trump’s previous silver-screen endeavors in Hollywood and Florida ended in failure. But politics is a more natural milieu for him. A Trumped-up Moses is essentially a message of hope. In the midst of turmoil, hope can be a powerful message with voters. The man from Hope, Ark., was able to captivate voters amid a struggling economy to win an election in 1992. Hope and change won the day at the onset of the financial crisis in 2008.

Trump’s hope is a different brand than either Bill Clinton’s or Barack Obama’s. For Trump, he is the source of hope. In front of the Republican National Convention in 2016, Trump called forth, “I alone can fix it.” It’s not a stretch to think he will do so again, even if his Mt. Sinai moment is not atop a convention stage but something more virtual. When 49 percent of white Protestants who frequently attend church believe Trump was anointed by God to be president, the man has got a faithful following.

Interestingly, Trump still receives good marks on his handling of the economy amid this recession. His economic approval rating is above 50 percent and he bests Joe Biden when voters are asked who can better handle the nation’s economy. If voters are more focused on rebuilding the economy than mitigating the coronavirus in the fall, that may be more fertile ground for Trump. With campaign resources dwarfing the budgets of even the biggest studio films, never underestimate Trump’s ability to control a news cycle.

But the Promised Land of an almighty economy may not be enough for the Moses from Queens. The president’s economic approval rating consistently overperforms his COVIDd-19 and overall job approval ratings. These approval ratings in the low to mid-40s closely match his vote share in general election polls against Biden.

Voters are more concerned about COVID-19 than the economy, and it’s here where Trump struggles. The trouble for Trump is his Moses-like hope messaging is also connected with a leap-of-faith governing style. Hope may be a fine messaging theme, but the time-worn adage in politics is “hope is not a strategy.” Trump hoped at first the death toll would naturally go down to zero (it didn’t), he hoped hydroxychloroquine would be a miracle panacea (it wasn’t), he hopes there will be a V-shaped economic recovery (seems unlikely), and he hopes there won’t be a re-emergence of the virus in the fall (who knows).

Americans are willing to watch Trump (great ratings!) but a big production won’t move the needle significantly enough when a majority of viewers are just not buying what Trump is selling. If Moses had the same trust deficit Trump currently has with voters, the story of Exodus, let alone the movie, would’ve been much shorter.

More problematic, 2020 is shaping up to be a referendum on Trump, unlike the choice in 2016. But the more Trump is front-and-center, the more he declines in the polls. If this theatrical production continues as is, even the Republican Cecil B. DeMille couldn’t salvage such a mess.

Ben Koltun is a senior research analyst at Beacon Policy Advisors LLC, an independent policy research firm based in Washington.

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