MUSKEGON, Michigan — President Donald Trump leaned into fear tactics Saturday as he accused the left of trying to “erase American history, purge American values and destroy the American way of life” in a late reelection pitch to voters in Michigan.
“The Democrat Party you once knew doesn’t exist,” Trump told voters in Muskegon, Michigan, ahead of a rally in Wisconsin — two states in the Upper Midwest that were instrumental to his 2016 victory but may now be slipping from his grasp.
As he tried to keep more voters from turning against him, Trump sought to paint Democrats as “anti-American radicals” on a “crusade against American history.” He told moderate voters they had a “a moral duty” to join the Republican Party.
He also revisited his monthslong feud with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Whitmer, a Democrat, was the focus of a kidnapping plot by anti-government extremists who were angered by lockdown measures she put in place as a result of the coronavirus. Thirteen men have been charged in connection with the scheme, which included plans to storm the state Capitol and to hold some kind of trial for the governor.
It’s a theme Trump leaned into, while the crowd chanted “Lock her up.”
“You got to get your governor to open your state and get your schools open. The schools have to be open, right?” said Trump, who also took credit for federal law enforcement’s role in foiling the plot.
A Whitmer aide responded to Trump’s attacks in a tweet.
“Every single time the President does this at a rally, the violent rhetoric towards her immediately escalates on social media,” Whitmer’s digital director, Tori Saylor, tweeted. “It has to stop. It just has to.”
Trump’s reelection pitch comes as he faces headwinds not only in national polling, which shows Democrat Joe Biden leading, but also in key battleground surveys. And it comes after the campaign largely retreated from TV advertising in the Midwest, shifting much of its money to Sun Belt states such as Florida, North Carolina, Arizona and Georgia, as well as Pennsylvania.
The president continues to be dogged by his handling of the coronavirus, which hospitalized him for several days earlier this month.
Wisconsin broke the record for new positive coronavirus cases on Friday — the third time that’s happened in a week. The state also hit record highs for daily deaths and hospitalizations this past week.
But there was little evidence of concern among the crowd at Trump’s airport rally, where thousands of supporters stood closely together in the cold. The vast majority eschewed masks.
Biden had no public events planned for Saturday. But in a memo to supporters, campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon warned about becoming complacent.
“The reality is that this race is far closer than some of the punditry we’re seeing on Twitter and on TV would suggest,” she wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. “If we learned anything from 2016, it’s that we cannot underestimate Donald Trump or his ability to claw his way back into contention in the final days of a campaign, through whatever smears or underhanded tactics he has at his disposal.”
Trump is keeping up an aggressive campaign schedule despite his own recent bout with the virus. He’s holding rallies Sunday in Nevada and Monday in Arizona before returning Tuesday to Pennsylvania.
The difficulty of securing a second term was apparent Friday when Trump campaigned in Georgia. No Republican presidential contender has lost the state since 1992, but polling shows Trump and Biden in a tight contest. Trump also has had to court voters in Iowa, which he carried by almost 10 percentage points four years ago.
The latest campaign fundraising figures from the Trump team suggest he’s likely the first incumbent president in the modern era to face a financial disadvantage. After building a massive cash edge, his campaign spent lavishly, while Biden kept expenses low and benefited from an outpouring of donations that saw him raise nearly $1 billion over the past three months. That gives Biden a massive cash advantage with just over two weeks to go before the election.
In the hours before his rallies on Saturday, Trump focused on settling a score with a member of his own party, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska.
Referring to him as “Little Ben Sasse,” Trump tweeted that the senator was a “liability to the Republican Party, and an embarrassment to the Great State of Nebraska.”
The series of tweets came after Sasse told constituents Wednesday during a telephone town hall meeting that Trump has “flirted with white supremacists,” mocks Christian evangelicals in private and “kisses dictators’ butts.”
Sasse, who is up for reelection this year in the strongly Republican state, went on to criticize the president’s handling of the coronavirus and said Trump’s family has treated the presidency “like a business opportunity.”
Trump’s Twitter broadside blasted Sasse as “the least effective of our 53 Republican Senators, and a person who truly doesn’t have what it takes to be great.”
Sasse’s spokesman, James Wegmann, tweeted in response that Sasse was focusing on helping Republicans retain their 53-47 Senate majority, and “he’s not going to waste a single minute on tweets.”