In an interview broadcast Sunday night on CBS, President Trump spectacularly outdid himself in revealing all of his very worst qualities in a compressed time period: the relentless lying; the unabashed sympathy with autocrats and dictators; the gloating, misogynist contempt for Christine Blasey Ford and the millions who saw her as an icon; the rabid xenophobia; and the lack of even minimal regret over the cruelest policies birthed by that xenophobia, such as the family separations resulting in thousands of children locked in cages.
In so doing, Trump perfectly showcased the Republicans’ predicament as they seek to hold the House: They need Trump to go full Trumpist to get out his voters, because his policies aren’t getting the job done — yet these displays are simultaneously strengthening the anti-Trump backlash among the constituencies most likely to deliver the House to Democrats.
The Post has a useful report on the struggles of Republican candidates in so-called “Trump country.” Republicans are likely to lose all the key Senate races, most of the gubernatorial races, and a number of House races in the industrial Midwestern states where Trump made such big inroads in 2016.
A single quote from a GOP consultant tells the whole story. Republican Lou Barletta is trailing Sen. Bob Casey (D) by double digits — in Pennsylvania, where Trump’s win shocked the world — despite running as a full-blown Trumper. Why? A strategist for Barletta explains it to The Post this way: “One false assumption that was made was that a Trump voter from the 2016 election was necessarily a Republican voter.”
The challenge for Republicans, then, is to turn Trump voters into Republican voters — that is, to get them to vote in midterms in sufficient numbers without Trump on the ballot. But how?
Trump provided a clue in his CBS News interview. Trump declared that it “doesn’t matter” whether Ford was telling the truth, “because we won” in getting Brett Kavanaugh confirmed. Pressed by CBS News’s Lesley Stahl on why he ridiculed Ford, Trump claimed that if he hadn’t, they would not have “won.” When Stahl pointed out that “thousands” of his supporters laughed at Ford after he did that, Trump insisted the Kavanaugh battle has “become a big factor in the midterms. Have you seen what’s gone on with the polls?”
Thus, Trump himself confirmed the basic outlines of the situation: The way to sufficiently energize base voters is for Trump to fill the media space with a big “win” that has the added benefit of rubbing the faces of millions on the losing side in excrement over it. We keep hearing that the motivating factor is the supposed mistreatment of Kavanaugh, and perhaps that is driving some GOP voters, but in Trump’s own telling, the necessary additional ingredient is the display of contempt and humiliation for the losers.
‘Donald Trump in full’
As The New York Times recently reported, the White House has adopted a strategy of unleashing what counselor Kellyanne Conway describes as “Donald Trump in full.” This entails letting Trump do as many rallies and as much talking as possible, enabling him to unleash as many lies and depravities as the media space will absorb.
Thus, in the CBS interview, when Stahl asked why Trump recently declared his “love” for Kim Jong Un, despite his history of repression, torture and political murder, Trump unapologetically said: “I get along with him, okay?” Trump idiotically insisted that climate change will “change back.” He claimed “China meddled” in the 2016 election, downgrading the blame on Russia. And he wouldn’t rule out constraining the Mueller probe. It’s more authoritarian signaling that the war on facts, empiricism, institutions and accountability (for Trump) continues.
Immigration is central to all of this. Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s ethno-nationalist agenda, believes Republicans will win if immigration is in the headlines, and Miller is behind Trump’s plan, now in the works, to revive his family separations policy in a new form. Indeed, Trump suggested to CBS that he might do just that, because otherwise people are “gonna pour into our country,” which reaffirms the cruel xenophobia behind dangling the horror of child separations to dissuade border-crossers, desperate asylum seekers included.
The Trump agenda isn’t getting it done
It turns out that the real Trump agenda — a combination of orthodox GOP plutocracy on taxes and ham-fisted, destructive xenophobic populism on trade and immigration — isn’t delivering political rewards. Bloomberg reports that the biggest-spending GOP outside group, which had pledged to turn the Trump/GOP tax cut into a winner for Republicans, has only mentioned the tax plan in a “fraction” of ads — because it’s a political flop.
Meanwhile, even in Trump country, Trump’s trade agenda isn’t getting it done. As The Post puts it: “Rising steel and aluminum prices, falling soybean prices, and new restrictions on car imports have sparked a wave of headlines in the region about layoffs and struggling farmers.”
All of which is why “Donald Trump in full” is the closing strategy. But this could end up putting the House, at least, at greater risk. Jonathan Allen closely analyzed Trump’s political itinerary and found that he’s mostly confining his campaigning to areas he won overwhelmingly, which means Republicans may privately understand that he’s toxic even in swing territory.
Meanwhile, Ron Brownstein reports that Democrats are now extremely well positioned in many of the suburban, well-educated House districts that will determine control of the lower chamber. And Trump is the reason. Brownstein looked at polling data and found that Trump’s approval rating in many of these districts is appallingly low, particularly so among college-educated white women, who plan to vote Democratic in overwhelming numbers.
As Brownstein concludes, the GOP’s precarious position in all these districts is a direct outgrowth of “Trump’s weak position in them,” which in turn flows from the fact that “Trump has focused his presidency almost entirely on the priorities and peeves of his base.”
The fact that “Donald Trump in full” is alienating and infuriating so many voters outside his base is the whole point. It’s almost as if this is the necessary precondition for ministering to his base’s priorities and peeves — it’s the only remaining hope, as that GOP strategist put it, of converting Trump voters into Republican voters.