For the first time in modern American history, we have a president who has made a calculation that projecting racism is a winning political strategy, that he can conquer by dividing the United States. The administration is pushing a political narrative that “We the people” does not necessarily mean “you,” not if you’re a different color, heritage or ideology.
The question is, will it work?
It’s a high-risk, two-pillar strategy. First, continue fortifying an already frothing base. Second, appeal to swing voters based not on an affinity to Trump but on a fear of something worse: a (false) perception of a takeover by raving socialists who hate America.
Trump’s ugly attack on the so-called “squad” – Rep.s Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezLouisiana Rep. Troy Carter announces positive COVID-19 test Joining Pelosi, Hoyer says lawmakers should be free to trade stocks Schumer prepares for Senate floor showdown with Manchin, Sinema MORE (D-N.Y.), Ayanna PressleyAyanna PressleyHouse votes to award medal to Willie O'Ree, first Black NHL player It's time for President Biden to use his vast clemency power Ayanna Pressley says she has tested COVID-19 positive in breakthrough case MORE (D-Mass.), Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibHouse Democrats inquire about possible census undercount in Detroit, other communities Michigan redistricting spat exposes competing interests in Democratic coalition Tlaib announces run in new Detroit district with Lawrence retiring MORE (D-Mich.) and Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarSenate needs to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as antisemitism envoy — Now Overnight Defense & National Security — DOD watchdog to review extremism screening Omar calls for closure of Guantánamo Bay prison after 20 years of 'lawlessness and cruelty' MORE (D-Minn.) – is the overture of the coming campaign, foreboding notes and all. Barring any major foreign policy crises, economic jolts, wars or attacks, Republicans will make 2020 a referendum on a strong economy that so-called socialists will ruin. Democrats will make it a referendum on a ruinous Trump.
But the music only counts in the battleground states of the Electoral College. And the evidence so far points to a xenophobic political strategy that is falling short—so far.
Each month Morning Consult polls Trump’s favorability across the country. In many of those battleground states, he is underwater.
Take Pennsylvania, the crucial battleground state Trump won by less than 1 percent. In June, his approval/disapproval rating was 44-53.
Trump carried Wisconsin, also by less than 1 percent. There, only 42 percent approve of him, compared with 55 percent who don’t.
Michigan went to Trump by less than a third of a percent. His favorables are now underwater by 15 points, 40 to 55.
Iowa gave the president a ten-point win over Clinton, but he’s down by 12 in favorability. He won Arizona by just under 4 points, and now his approval there is minus 7. In Florida, which he carried by just over 1 point, his job approval rating is 47-50.
There’s another indicator of a failing strategy: the 2018 midterm election. In the closing weeks, Trump tweeted madly about caravans of diseased and criminal elements massing on our borders. The electorate responded by repudiating him. Democrats flipped 41 seats, including two in Florida, two in Iowa, two in Michigan, four in Pennsylvania (mostly due to redistricting) and one in Arizona.
One Republican House member told me that Trump knows his numbers are low in battleground states. He just needs to drive the Democratic brand lower.
How? Put all Democrats in one socialist basket. He acknowledges that Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiJoining Pelosi, Hoyer says lawmakers should be free to trade stocks Budowsky: To Dems: Run against the do-nothing GOP, Senate Momentum builds to prohibit lawmakers from trading stocks MORE has effectively protected moderate Democrats in her skirmish with “The Squad.” He believes he’s now reset the narrative.
Trump has his basket as well: his base. He’s refused to expand his appeal to swing voters, suburban women and voters of color. His problem is this: Elections are about addition, not subtraction.
One of the reasons Clinton lost to Trump in 2016 was that African American turnout was 4.7 points lower than for President Obama in 2012 One of the reasons George W. Bush won in 2004 was that he increased his share of the Latinx vote from 34 percent to 40 percent. Trump appears willing to risk driving turnout to Democrats, believing he can win by securing his base and scaring swing voters with a simple message: You may dislike me, but you’ll fear them more.
Which means hate will be a dominant theme over the next 16 months, playing out subliminally and overtly. Act 1 was this past week.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.