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Impeached, with a solid base and no apologies — Trump becomes the only issue of 2020

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Every politician needs a base. Your base are the people who are with you when you’re wrong. Donald Trump has a loyal base going into the 2020 election. The problem is, it may be the only firm support he has.

Ronald Reagan had a base. His base stood by him during the Iran-contra scandal even though they were horrified at the idea that he sold arms to Iran to finance a guerrilla war in Central America.

Bill Clinton had a base. Clinton’s base may have been embarrassed by his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, but they never abandoned him.

Gary Hart didn’t have a base. When his fling with Donna Rice was exposed, his support evaporated. Not enough people believed in Hart to keep his campaign going, forcing him to drop out of the 1988 race for president.

Donald Trump certainly has a base. The Washington Post reports that, as of mid-December, Trump has made over 15,000 false or misleading statements. But his base has remained steadfast. They believe him because they believe in him.

Most presidents aim to expand their base. Not Trump. He governs by catering exclusively to his base. He sees the world as “us” versus “them.” He denounces his critics as traitors,  implying that their criticism of him amounts to disloyalty to the country. He calls the Democrats running for president “a group of socialists or communists.

Trump’s base is about one-third of the electorate. They are the 34 percent of voters who, in the mid-December Quinnipiac poll, said they “strongly approve” of the way Trump is handling his job as president. That’s enough to give him control of the Republican Party. But it may not be enough to win re-election.

Trump will have difficulty expanding his base for two reasons. First, he shows little interest in winning over voters outside his base. And second, his strategy of deliberately dividing the country is widely resented by voters outside his base. Other presidents have been divisive, but Trump is the only one who has pursued division as a deliberate strategy. 

Can he win with just his base? He clearly thinks so — and for a good reason: That’s how he won in 2016.

It worked once, and he thinks it will work again. The key is the Electoral College. His base — mostly white voters without a college degree — can provide Trump with the margin of victory he needs in key battleground states like Wisconsin and Michigan.

But there’s one big difference between 2016 and 2020. Trump is the only president to run for re-election after being impeached. At the last debate, Andrew Yang told his fellow Democrats, “We have to stop being obsessed over impeachment.” He called impeachment a “distraction” from the “real” issues facing the country, namely economic issues.

Actually, 2020 looks like an atypical election where the main issue will not be economic. Three-quarters of Americans say the nation’s economy is good — the highest number in nearly 20 years. Nor will the main issue be any of the issues the Democratic candidates like to talk about — health care, taxes or trade. The main issue will be Trump.

One candidate who understands that is former Vice President Joe Biden. Biden said during the last debate, “This president has ripped the soul out of this country, divided us in ways that are absolutely outrageous.”  Another is Michael Bloomberg, who said in his announcement, “I’m running for president to defeat Donald Trump … He represents an existential threat to our country and our values. If he wins another term in office, we may never recover from the damage.”

President Trump sees his upcoming trial in the Senate as a “show trial.”  Historically, show trials have been judicial proceedings where the guilt of the defendant is a foregone conclusion. In Trump’s case, it’s just the opposite. Given the Republican majority in the Senate, Trump’s acquittal is a foregone conclusion.

President Trump wants the trial to show that impeachment is a personal attack by his enemies aimed at delegitimizing his presidency, not a judgment on his conduct in office. The day before he was impeached, Trump said that he takes “zero responsibility” for his impeachment.

Given the likely acquittal, Democrats are intent on exposing the Senate trial as illegitimate. They are trying to compel Senate Republicans to allow Democrats to call administration witnesses and subpoena White House documents. “Why is [Republican] Leader [Mitch] McConnell so afraid of witnesses and documents?” asked Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic Leader.

Americans “get” trials. In the 1990s, they were obsessed with the trial of O.J. Simpson. It seems highly irregular for Sen. McConnell to declare, “I’m not an impartial juror.” Juror McConnell is openly consorting with the defendant and acting as Trump’s protector in the proceedings. You never saw that on “Perry Mason” or on “Law and Order.”

Both sides are being energized by the impeachment process. President Trump is trying to stoke his base’s outrage over his impeachment. Democrats will be outraged by Trump’s acquittal. Both sides will see the 2020 election as Armageddon, the final battle between the forces of light and darkness.

President Trump has never expressed remorse over his behavior. “He sees it as a stain on the legacy of people who have been so focused and hell-bent on removing him from office,” Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor to the president, said. Meanwhile, presidential historian Douglas Brinkley called Trump’s impeachment “a medallion of shame.”

Democrats are intent upon shaming Trump. What they’re discovering is that it’s very difficult to shame someone who is essentially shameless.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags 2020 election Andrew Yang Bill Clinton Chuck Schumer Democratic debate Donald Trump Donald Trump Impeachment Joe Biden Kellyanne Conway Michael Bloomberg political base senate impeachment trial Trump base

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