On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) to marshal the might of American manufacturing. The law, though used periodically for non-wartime endeavors, was passed in 1950 to aid America during the Korean War. At the time, US troops lacked supplies and resources. Through the DPA, Washington was able to provide loans, materials, and workers for companies in their new wartime duties.

‘Wartime President’

Trump himself previously used part of the DPA in June, 2017 to create the US Space Force. His predecessor, President Barack Obama, also leveraged the DPA to force telecommunication businesses to reveal the sources of their hardware and software in an effort to prevent foreign states from spying on US networks. 

Trump’s use of the DPA this week was part of a larger effort by the American leader to portray himself as a grand leader. During a press conference, he referred to himself as, “in a sense, a wartime president.” Those words came after he opened the briefing by declaring the US is waging “war against the Chinese virus.”

As one show of force against the enemy, he announced the deployment of two Navy hospital vessels, one of which will be dispatched to New York. 

Economic Woes Sparked the Change

Trump’s base is his base: MAGA hat-wearing, flag-toting conservatives and nationalist populists who stand by him through thick and thin.The new coronavirus has changed that, though. Under Trump, unemployment reached record lows and the stock market hit record highs, and he took credit for it all, but now he is eight months away from an election and all those gains since he took office have been wiped away within a two-month span.

The economy was always Trump’s bread and butter ⁠— or so he claimed. By Trump’s accounts, he is a successful businessman and reality TV host. He knew how to make America win again by renegotiating trade deals and putting American businesses back to work. It is no exaggeration to say that the Republican Party since Reagan has been a sort of economic cult believing in trickle down economics and big business without government regulations. Indeed, that belief has been a tent-pole feature of the Republican brand.

Trump’s Re-election Campaign is in Deep Trouble

With a failing economy, what can Trump hang his hat on in November? He built a wall that military families have paid for, not Mexico. He removed the US from the Iranian Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) that a majority of Americans supported. He started a trade war with China that hurt American farmers so badly the administration spent $16 billion bailing them out.

Trump has the answer: war, and in true Trump fashion, it’s the best war America has ever seen because no US troops are in danger. The coronavirus has given Trump a new reason to rally his supporters. 

“Every generation of Americans has been called to make shared sacrifices for the good of the nation,” Trump said. “Now it’s our time. We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together.”

He didn’t need to mention World War II (although he did) to invoke the image of a wartime president. As Gabby Orr and Lara Seligman observed for Politico, both the White House and the Trump campaign changed their tones overnight to adopt a more warlike posture.

Vice President Mike Pence also joined Trump’s call for sacrifice to ensure the safety of all Americans and the Republican National Committee commended the new “wartime footing.” Undoubtedly they believe the war line of messaging can benefit Trump in the election. Sure, any form of cohesive messaging is better than the chaotic way the administration began handling the crisis at the onset. Wartime presidents, in particular, have proven themselves invincible when running for reelection — no wartime president has ever lost.

Is Covid-19 Really Equivalent to a World War?

The jury is out on this because we simply haven’t encountered such a scenario before. Obama didn’t market himself as a wartime president after fighting the H1N1 virus, for example. The differences between H1N1 and Covid-19 are rather stark, for obvious reasons. However, if it Covid-19 is to be compared to war, it is a war on the home front, something the US has not witnessed in nearly 200 years. 

It is also difficult to conjure up a wartime image without putting a face on the enemy. Perhaps that is why Trump is insistent on labeling it the “Chinese virus.” 

But Americans aren’t reacting to the Chinese like they did with the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Their anger can’t be conjured up and directed at a virus they can’t see. And Trump’s survival depends on Americans getting stoked up and turning up at polls ready to vote for their commander-in-chief. That won’t happen with Covid-19.

The best case scenario for Trump is that he establishes himself as presidential — a quality some might argue he has never embodied. If he does that, then his chances of victory increase, but he didn’t need a war to accomplish that.

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