Trump Plays His Greatest Hits
Posted October 31, 2018 11:17 a.m. EDT
Every good politician knows that you need a closing argument for your campaign, a way to seal the deal with wavering voters or goose turnout among the already committed. So in the last two weeks, with the midterms looming, Donald Trump has offered a set of closing arguments that might be summarized as follows: The fake news media is the enemy and reporters deserve to be roughed up a little, I’m going to help the middle class with tax cuts and cheaper prescription drugs, and nobody will be tougher on illegal immigration — whether that means sending thousands of troops to the southern border or ending birthright citizenship by fiat.
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The media-bashing part of the pitch comes from Trump’s Twitter feed and his recent Montana rally, where he hailed the congressman who assaulted a journalist unprovoked as “my kind of guy.” The middle-class populism is embodied in Trump’s vaporous proposal to cut middle-class taxes by 10 percent, and his more credible plan to change the way that Medicare pays for prescription drugs so that we aren’t subsidizing the world. And the illegal-immigration gambits describe themselves.
What unites these arguments is that they were all crucial to his pitch during the 2016 campaign, all part of what made Trump-the-candidate unlike a normal Republican nominee: He was hard-line on immigration in ways that included xenophobic flourishes like the Muslim ban, he was populist on economics in a way that placed him closer to the center than a Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney, and whether in rally one-liners or retweets he winked at not only extremism but even vigilante violence.
In his presidency, the first two aspects of Trumpian exceptionalism have been blocked or limited — the courts and Congress have pushed back against his most restrictive immigration measures (narrowing the travel ban, forcing him to abandon the child separation policy), and congressional Republicans’ preference for warmed-over supply-side economics has often won out over Trump’s more populist promises.
The desire to wink at extremism has remained — witness his Charlottesville response — but it’s been somewhat kept in check by staff and aides, and the mix of white nationalists and alt-right provocateurs who fastened onto him in 2016 have seen their stars dim and a much more conventional group of right-wing grifters take their place.
Still, it’s not at all surprising that with the election almost here Trump would return to what seemed to work for him two years ago, and try to revive the mix of identitarian demagogy and policy heterodoxy that helped him achieve a partial Electoral College realignment while his party held both the House and Senate.
The question is whether it will work again and keep the House in Republican hands for two more years. If it doesn’t, there will be two main explanations.
First, the voters who were won over by Trump’s economic populism when he was running against Hillary Clinton — especially the kind of Midwestern Democratic voters who flipped the Electoral College — now have almost two years of policymaking to assess, rather than just a campaign’s worth or promises. And on the evidence of a lot of Midwestern polls, they believe the GOP under Trump is still more plutocratic than populist.
This is a reasonable assessment. True, on trade and low-skilled immigration Trump can at least claim (however debatably) to be looking out for blue-collar workers more than past Republicans. But on taxes he delivered an unpopular tax cut for the rich, on health care he delivered a failed and hated Obamacare replacement, and on infrastructure, the big campaign promise, he delivered next to nothing.
If an infrastructure bill or the things he’s suddenly pitching — lower prescription drug prices and a tax cut for the middle class — had been central to his agenda in 2017 he might have been a much more politically formidable president. But bringing them up now would smack of political desperation even if voters were paying close attention to the new proposals — and they probably aren’t, given the chaos of pre-election coverage.
So the return to economic populism is likely to be less effective in 2018 than the same message was in 2016. And then at the same time the wink to the conspiratorial extremes, the japes about body-slams and punching protesters in the face, have met the thing most likely to make them a political liability: actual far-right violence.
The idiosyncratic nature of lone-wolf attacks makes it a mistake to draw a line of direct responsibility from Trump’s rhetoric to the would-be pipe bomber and the synagogue shooting. And the oft-repeated claim that the Trump era has produced a general surge in anti-Semitic violence seems dubious or wrong.
But the events of last week are still a strong reminder that the politics of vilification and the paranoid style work darkly in darkened minds, and that having a president embrace both is simple wickedness, not just the WWE-style game that Trump may believe himself to be playing with his rhetoric. And voters who decided to forgive Trump’s demagogy in 2016, or treat it as performance art, have just been given a visceral reason to punish him for it instead.
Given our vertiginous style of politics, there is still time for some unexpected development, some last-minute midterm twist. But with a week to go the safest bet is that in returning to the same strategy he followed in 2016, Trump will earn — and deserve — a more disappointing political result.
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