Ideas

Trump rallies his base, but he’s not growing it

AP
Supporters for President Donald Trump waves signs at a rally where he formally announced his 2020 re-election bid Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

EARLIER THIS WEEK Donald Trump kicked off his campaign for re-election by demonizing immigrants, viciously criticizing his Democratic rivals, launching personal attacks against his many political enemies, recounting his endless series of grievances, and lying about his record.

In other words, it was a typical day in Trump’s America.

As at every Trump rally — and frankly the majority of Republican presidential events for the past several decades — the president played on the cultural resentments of his core supporters.

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“Our political opponents look down with hatred on our values and with utter disdain for the people whose lives they want to run,” said Trump. “They tried to take away your dignity and your destiny. But we will never let them do that, will we?”

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Of course, Trump always needs to take things a step too far — and in this case, it meant dangerous and delegitimizing rhetoric about Democrats.

“Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage,” said Trump. “They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it.”

Accusing one’s opponents of wanting to “destroy our country” is the type of language that could potentially get someone killed.

It’s also emblematic of Trump’s scorched earth approach to his re-election campaign: He is running a base-mobilization strategy that is intended to energize his core supporters. No discernible effort is being extended to those not already inclined to support the president. Indeed, in an interview with Time magazine, when asked if he could reach out beyond his base, Trump said his “base is so strong, I’m not sure that I have to do that.”

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Ironically, the Trump campaign has a good story to tell — with strong economic growth and low unemployment. But it remains a prisoner to the resentments and vitriol of the president. And that could be very good news for Democrats.

Polling shows Trump is an unusually unpopular figure who is getting almost no credit for the strong economy that has defined his presidency so far. Even more telling is how remarkably static his poll numbers are in head-to-head matchups against his potential Democratic opponents. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, when matched against six Democratic candidates, Trump was at 42 percent in four of them — the same as his approval rating.

According to Fox News, Trump is scoring between 39 and 41 percent against five top Democrats — underperforming his approval rating, which is a bit higher at 45 percent. To the extent that there are undecided voters in these polls, they are not switching from a Democrat to Trump; they are moving from a Democrat to “not sure.”

One should be careful not to overinterpret these results. After all, we’re still nearly a year-and-a-half from Election Day. At the same time, it appears evident that Trump is not winning over many voters who don’t already support him.

Since Trump is so unpopular — and he appears congenitally incapable of moderating his stances — it behooves his campaign to tear down his Democratic rivals and convince voters that while they may not like Trump, the alternative is worse. This is basically the strategy that George W. Bush used in 2004, so it can work. But the challenge for Trump is that he is so deeply loathed that he’s going to have a hard time making any other candidate look worse than him. Also, this tactic can be self-defeating because the angrier and more divisive Trump gets, the more he turns off the same voters he is trying to win over.

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Maybe a “burn down your opponent” strategy could work against someone like Bernie Sanders — as a self-identified socialist, he can be easily demonized. Would it work the same way on Biden and Warren if Trump went after the former for being “sleepy” and the latter with a Native American slur? Perhaps. But would constantly attacking Warren, for example, as “Pocahontas,” remind voters — particularly the suburban women who are deserting the GOP — of what it is they don’t like about Trump?

For Trump, the path to victory risks reinforcing all the reasons why he is so unpopular to begin with.

Trump will certainly talk a big game and the choir will lap up his stump speeches and bray along to his insults and grievances. But don’t be fooled: Trump’s road to re-election is a difficult one — and it is precisely the things that his supporters love about him that make it that much harder.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.