The Memo: Trump shores up base amid crisis

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President Trump is moving to shore up his political base amid growing criticism of his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Trump has made several efforts in recent days to bolster his most fervent supporters. 

The most obvious example is the introduction of new restrictions on immigration. The president has also offered support to protesters in three states who have pushed back against social distancing guidelines, used his near-daily media briefings to gleefully attack the media and, on Wednesday, flexed American military muscle toward Iran.

To be sure, Trump has adopted a similar base-first strategy throughout his presidency, building on the polarizing approach that got him elected against the odds in 2016. 

But the red-meat approach seems particularly incongruous in the middle of a national emergency that has claimed more than 42,000 American lives. 

The president may feel he has little choice, as he watches his road to reelection steepen while the coronavirus crisis wreaks havoc on a previously strong economy.

Trump announced on Twitter on Monday night that he would sign an executive order to “temporarily suspend immigration into the United States.”

He is expected to issue an executive order that does not go that far, but that instead would suspend new green cards, while allowing guest worker programs to continue.

But critics of Trump condemned the move as cynical and driven by electoral anxiety.

“It is painfully obvious what he is up to. He has failed the country, he is losing support, his reelection is threatened and he is trying to incite a culture war,” said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, which advocates for more liberal immigration policies.

“He thinks the way to win reelection is by dividing us into groups that are motivated by grievance — against the media, against the cities, against the Democrats, against the immigrants, against the people of color, against the feminists,” Sharry added.

The president’s reelection campaign sought to present the move as commonsensical and in step with the American mainstream.

Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign’s communications director, said earlier this week that the executive order was geared at simultaneously safeguarding the economy and protecting public health. 

“The usual suspects are sniping from the sidelines, but they have always cared more about scoring political points against the President than they do about anything else,” Murtaugh said in an emailed statement.

The controversy over immigration came only days after Trump sent a series of all-caps tweets urging people to “LIBERATE” Virginia, Michigan and Minnesota. All three states have Democratic governors and have seen protests against social distancing restrictions.

The tweets drew fierce criticism, including from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who accused Trump of “fomenting domestic rebellion.”

It may be no accident that these moves come as the initial bump Trump received in the polls over his handling of the coronavirus crisis falls away.

A Washington Post/University of Maryland poll conducted between April 14 and April 19 indicated 54 percent of adults nationwide considered Trump’s response to the crisis to be “poor” or “not so good,” while only 44 percent rated it “excellent” or “good.”

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted between April 13 and April 15, showed a similar pattern, with 44 percent of registered voters approving of Trump’s response and 52 percent disapproving.

Even more troubling to Trump’s supporters, there are some indications that older Americans — broadly, the group at the gravest risk if they develop COVID-19 — are increasingly dubious about Trump.

This is particularly important for two reasons. Older people reliably turn out at high levels in elections, and they have been a key pillar of Trump’s electoral coalition. 

In 2016, Trump bested Democrat Hillary Clinton 52 percent to 45 percent among the over-65s, according to exit polls.

Several recent polls have shown some erosion for the president with older voters. The most recent example came on Wednesday, in a Quinnipiac University poll of Florida. 

The poll showed Trump underwater among people 65 years old and over in the Sunshine State both in terms of his general job performance (44 percent approval to 53 percent disapproval) and in terms of his response to the coronavirus (47 percent approval to 50 percent disapproval). 

Those numbers are particularly striking because Trump won that segment of Florida voters by 17 points in 2016, according to exit polls. 

A return to the “greatest hits” of the 2016 campaign — a hard line on immigration, a disdain for the media and elites, and a call for “America First” policies — may be a way to try to turn those numbers around.

There are, clearly, swathes of Trump’s base — not just among older Americans —who are enthused by the tactics.

“I think he has done a great job and, among our supporters, an overwhelming majority think he has handled this crisis well,” Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin told The Hill.

Martin also strongly backed Trump’s move on green cards, saying that it was important both for public health reasons and because “we have a lot of work to do to revive our country, and we need Americans to do that work when you have 22 million-plus people unemployed.”

Even among some Republicans, however, there is discomfort about the confrontational nature of Trump’s approach.

One Republican strategist with ties to the White House, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said that the immigration debate was unlikely to shift public opinion much one way or the other, even though there might be some marginal advantage for Trump because it “inflames the left.”

But the strategist was also skeptical of Trump’s combative and freewheeling White House briefings.

“He is using it as a platform to continue to hold the support of his base. It is not an exercise to reach out to the rest of the country,” the strategist said. “Many of us have started tuning it out.”

Those who have broken with Trump express a far more emphatic view.

“The organizing principles of the Trump Republican Party are fear and anger, and envy,” said John ‘Mac’ Stipanovich, a longtime Republican lawyer and lobbyist in Florida, but a strong Trump critic. 

“The essence of the fear is White Fright, hence the repetitive play on immigration. The anger and the envy speaks to the demonizing of the elites, the disrespecting of experts,” Stipanovich added. 

“It’s the same playbook, with some variants.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Immigration Jay Inslee

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