Give ’Em Hell, Donald
AP Photo/Byron Rollins
Give ’Em Hell, Donald
AP Photo/Byron Rollins
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He probably won’t admit it, and may not know it, but President Trump has ripped a page from the Harry Truman Playbook

Like Truman, who trailed badly in the polls in 1948, Trump is out on the campaign trail nearly every day whistle-stopping at airports in battleground states and “Giving ’em hell” as he tries to defy the news media and the pundits by winning a second term.

And as a sign of the times, Trump’s attacks on Democrat Joe Biden are more blistering than anything Truman hurled at heavily favored Republican Tom Dewey in his famous comeback victory 72 years ago.

“Sleepy Joe Biden is the living embodiment of the corrupt political class that enriched itself while draining the economic life and soul of our country,” Trump told a cheering, sign-waving airport crowd Friday in Macon, Ga. Earlier in the day he spoke in Ocala, Fla. On Saturday, he held rallies in Muskegon, Mich., and Janesville, Wis. On Thursday he was in Greenville, N.C.

 “So, get your friends, get your family, get your neighbors, get out and vote,” Trump implored his North Carolina supporters. “The red wave is coming; the red wave is coming.”

When the Wisconsin rally ended Saturday evening, Trump flew to Las Vegas where he attended church Sunday morning and held an evening rally in Carson City, Nev. In all those states he visited, Trump is either running even with Biden or behind. He won all but Nevada in 2016.

Trump’s frenetic campaign schedule sharply contrasts that of Biden, which is far more leisurely, strictly social distanced with smaller crowds and usually one stop a day.

Like Trump, Truman was largely dismissed by the press as a goner in 1948. Ignoring the polls and pundits, he took to the train in the final two months of the campaign and made his case directly to the people. Over eight weeks, he doggedly crisscrossed the country several times and traveled more than 25,000 miles.  His fiery speeches, which drew huge crowds at every stop, boosted him to victory over the heavily favored Dewey, then the New York governor.

As Truman’s campaign train chugged out of Washington’s Union Station on Labor Day 1948, Alben Barkley, his vice-presidential running mate, shouted from the platform, “Mow ’em down, Harry!” Truman quickly shouted back, “I’m going to mow ’em down, Alben. I’m going to give ’em hell!” -- setting the theme for that historic battle.

“This is your fight,” Truman repeatedly told his audiences. “I hope you will join me in this crusade to keep the country from going to the dogs.”

Like Trump, Truman kept up a running battle with the news media, then mostly newspaper reporters. “If they want to ask me impudent questions, I will try to give them impudent answers.” he said.

Trump’s language for the press is blunter.  He calls them “fake news.”

But Truman’s speeches weren’t all fire and brimstone. He often sprinkled them with humor. Such as when he told voters to ignore polls that showed him behind.  He warned that they were designed to discourage Truman voters from voting on Election Day.

“You might call them sleeping polls,” Truman quipped to big laughs.

Truman won by more than 2 million votes. Trump is hoping some of that old Truman lightning strikes again. While he repeatedly ticks off a litany of accomplishments in his first term such as tax cuts for all, a new Mexico-Canada trade deal and a boost in financial aid to historically black colleges, and exudes optimism on corralling the coronavirus, his sharpest language is reserved for Biden.

“Joe Biden shipped away your jobs, shut down your factories through open borders and ravaged our cities,” he said in Macon on Saturday night. Earlier that evening he headlined a tumultuous rally in Fort Myers, Fla.  Georgia and Florida are pivotal battlegrounds states in 2020. Trump needs to win them both or go home.

As their predecessors did with Truman in ’48 and Trump in ’16, the 2020 news media read the polls that show the president behind, ignore or disparage the enthusiastic crowds that cheer him and smugly assume that Biden will be a shoo-in winner. The Washington Post, for example, made no mention or showed no pictures of the Georgia or Florida rallies in its Saturday edition.  It did, however, have a story on how difficult it might be for Trump White House staffers to find jobs next year if their boss loses.

“[They] are hoping the Trump presidency isn’t a disqualifying blemish on their resumes,” the article said.

If Trump pulls an upset, the laugh will be on the news media for again missing the story by failing to report it. The failure of the press in 1948 – and Truman’s glee at seeing his nemesis so humiliated – is still taught in journalism school. But this lesson was missed in 2016 when almost all the media coronated Hillary Clinton long before the votes were in.

In a rare media mea culpa -- “The unbearable smugness of the press” -- written two days after Trump’s 2016 victory, then-CBS political correspondent Will Rahn wrote that much of the public hates the press.

“And can you blame them?” Rahn asked. “Journalists love mocking Trump supporters. We insult their appearances. We dismiss them as racists and sexists. We emote on Twitter about how this or that comment or policy makes us feel one way or the other, and yet we reject their feelings as invalid.”

Clearly, those words from 2016 have had little resonance with 2020’s political press corps. We still see similar reporting. The New York Times on Sunday pretty much dismissed Trump’s ambitious barnstorming effort as futile.

 “Trump Runs the Kind of Campaign He Likes, but Not the One He Might Need,” said a front-page headline.

What would Harry Truman make of all this?

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches media and politics at American University and in The Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @benedettopress.

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