President Trump’s "base strategy," by which he cossets his supporters while pissing off all others, is serving the Democrats well.
Unlike most politicians (and surely most presidents), Trump treats his base as an end in itself and not a beginning. He also goes out of his way to avoid adding to it.
John Kennedy, who knew a thing or two about winning elections, had a rule about not making others angry enough to devote time and energy to pursue his destruction. Trump, in contrast, seems to revel in goading opponents into frenzies of unbridled rage.
His long train of tweets, taunts, smirks; indifference to racists, descriptions of fascists as being "great people," and slights to war heroes and/or their survivors; these have all helped create an army of people willing to sell their first born to give him a drubbing. And last Tuesday, they gave him (in the form of his unfortunate surrogates) a historic beat-down in the state of Virginia that almost doubled the percentage by which he had lost it last year.
All this, of course, was completely uncalled for. Had he reversed course and unexpectedly given a gracious address at his inaugural, the women’s march a day later would have lost its momentum. Recruitment and fund-raising would have been lessened, and the "resistance" might not have appeared. Instead, he delivered what was correctly described by our 43rd president as a lot of ‘weird shit’ to an unsettled electorate, which served all the more to arouse its suspicions. And things quickly went downhill from there.
In November 2016, Trump lost the Old Dominion by five points. In November 2017, after the Charlottesville riots, Confederate statue controversies, and more fights with servicemen’s families, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie, who was his surrogate in the eyes of the voters, lost the state of Virginia by nine points. In 2016, Trump won college-educated whites by 49-45; in 2017 his surrogate lost them by 2.
Trump's enthusiastic nationalist base, pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson has noted, turns out to be smaller than it appears. "They imagine the number and strength of his supporters as bigger than it is," Peggy Noonan has written.
Trump’s surprise win last year was a stunning achievement, but even then it was far from a popular triumph. The warning signs that should have been heeded were instead dismissed and ignored. Trump lost the popular vote by almost three million and won the nomination without winning a majority of the votes in the primaries. A lot of his voters didn’t much like him, many finding him unfit for the presidency, and still more disliking his tantrums and tweets.
"The decisive votes for Trump were not cast by the passionately committed," as E.J. Dionne has told us, correctly. "The media exit poll found that only 38 percent...had a favorable view of Trump....The contest was settled by those who viewed both Trump and Hillary Clinton negatively. These pox-on-both-houses voters made up 18 percent of the electorate, and went 47 percent to 30 percent for Trump."
The Donald's surprise win was more like a last-minute rejection of Hillary, by people who felt sixteen years had been already too much of the Clintons, and weren’t ready for four or eight more. This combination of fairly low numbers and widespread indifference should have set off alarm bells at Trump Central. Instead, Trump was misled by the size and the noise of the rallies into thinking them more than they were. Outreach was needed, but it wasn’t forthcoming. The base is intense and noisy, but it didn’t elect him, and it can’t be relied upon now.
Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."