Every president has a base, and every president lets them down. They have no choice, because presidents have to govern broadly to survive politically. This lesson has escaped the current president, and until now you could be forgiven for believing that he had upended the laws of political gravity by governing expressly and exclusively for his core supporters. For the past two years we have been treated to a media narrative that normalizes outrageous presidential words and actions on the grounds that the Republican base loves them. You probably know the narrative by heart. “President Trump said/did [fill in the outrage], which was applauded by his base. Republican senators and congressmen had no comment.” And—that’s it, as if it’s normal to ignore a majority of the country.
The results of the 2018 election should put this ill-conceived narrative to rest. Yes, Donald Trump remains extremely popular with his base. Yes, they voted in large numbers for Republican candidates. But they are and always have been a minority of the population. The rest of the country voted, too, and there are more of them. That’s why Democrats realized their best midterm results in 44 years.
Republicans who recognize that November was anything but a huge win for them—which is to say every Republican but the president—understand that Trump’s base strategy has put them in a colossal bind with no obvious way out. As Donald Trump staged his hostile takeover of the Republican Party, he won the allegiance of voters who were primed by years of Republican messaging to respond to grievance politics. They are now his loyal supporters: Trumpians first, Republicans second. But Republican officials still depend on these voters, so they remain silent whenever Trump speaks to their grievances, no matter how offensive he may appear to everyone else. There’s no other way they could hope to forestall primary challengers who would rush to Trump’s defense.
We now have evidence that the base strategy which is essential in the primaries is catastrophic in a general election. The largest and most consequential damage came from educated white suburban women, once reliable Republican voters who recoil from Trump and helped deliver the House to Democrats. Republicans need to find a way to get these voters back before 2020, but there is no way to do it unless Trump stops feeding his base. This means abandoning the rallies, deleting his Twitter account, toning down his rhetoric, and making overtures to his detractors, not to mention relinquishing his trade war, family separation policies, and efforts to destroy his predecessors signature healthcare accomplishment. But of course he can’t do these things. Even if he were emotionally capable of forgoing the ego gratification he gets from the adulation of his supporters, even if he were self-aware enough to understand how his governing approach is self-destructive and damaging his party, moderating his behavior would be the equivalent of shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. The only thing that might cause his base to abandon him would be if he stopped being Donald Trump.
In the aftermath of the 2018 election, this should terrify Republicans. They are boxed in. The best way to guarantee a second consecutive blue wave is to do nothing to address the fundamentals that caused the first one. But to address the fundamentals is to risk demoralizing the base, and the wave would have been a tsunami had that happened this year. Republicans created this problem for themselves. It has been years in the making, but only now do we have evidence of how serious it is.
Dependence on a base that’s at odds with the rest of the country is a trap for Republicans if the rest of the country is motivated (and able) to vote. In the short term it can lead to electoral catastrophe in 2020. In the long term it could bring about a lasting realignment of the electorate. I will consider each of these possibilities in my next two posts.