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ICYMI: Ronald Brownstein: “Trump Settles on His Reelection Message”

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“I’ll protect you”

In his latest piece for The Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein looks at Trump’s recent CPAC speech, identifying the dark phrase, “I’ll protect you,” as an encapsulation of his likely 2020 re-election message.

Brownstein also recognizes that while the relentless and ugly focus on xenophobia may rally the GOP base, it also “hardens the discontent” of the larger majority of the electorate who, like in the 2018 midterms, oppose Trump and Republican fear-mongering and xenophobia.

Brownstein’s piece is excerpted below, and available in full here.

In his marathon speech to a gathering of conservative activists last weekend, Donald Trump unloaded more than 16,000 words, according to the official White House transcript.

But amid all the meandering and asides, the belittling taunts (“Little Shifty Schiff” for Democratic Representative Adam Schiff) and geysers of grievance, Trump may have synthesized the essence of his reelection strategy in just three words toward the back end of his two-hour harangue: “I’ll protect you.”

With that concise phrase, Trump revealed volumes about his view of the electorate and the coalition that he hopes will carry him to a second term. The comment underscored his determination to convince his followers of a two-stage proposition: First, that they are “under siege,” as he put it, by an array of forces that he presented as either hostile to their interests or contemptuous of their values, and second, that only he can shield them from those threats.

That dark and martial message shows that Trump continues to prioritize energizing his core supporters—blue-collar, older, and nonurban whites uneasy about demographic, cultural, and economic change—even at the price of further alienating voters dismayed or disgusted by his behavior as president. It also shows that, even as an incumbent, Trump is drawn far more toward running on fear than on hope.

…Trump showed far more passion in warning against all the dangers he described as massing against his supporters. The speech demonstrated yet again that he’s more comfortable positioning himself as the lone sentry manning the watch at “midnight in America” than as the optimist who has delivered “morning in America,” as Ronald Reagan memorably put it.

…As he summoned all these dangers, Trump simultaneously portrayed himself as the one force that could block them.

…The fervor that Trump stirs among his supporters with such exclusionary rhetoric is palpable at each of his rallies—and was visible again at CPAC last weekend. But the circle he draws around “the American way of life” has never been inclusive enough to attract a majority of the country. Both Election Day exit polls and postelection analysis of state voter files indicate that the groups that feel most excluded from his definition—young people, minorities, college-educated white women—not only gave Democrats larger-than-usual margins last November, but also turned out in unusually high numbers. The veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told me the evidence from 2018 suggests that in 2020, at least 10 million more people might vote than in the 2016 presidential election—most of them from constituencies hostile to Trump.

Trump, and the GOP leadership more broadly, continue to behave as if those newly activated Americans are not also hearing everything Trump does to stoke his core supporters. But last weekend’s speech encapsulated almost everything that people critical of or even ambivalent about Trump dislike about him. Each time Trump breaks a boundary, he hardens the discontent, in particular among many well-educated middle-class voters who are doing fine economically but who view him as unfit for the Oval Office in morals and temperament. “There is a group of voters who voted for Trump holding their nose, who hoped he would be a different person and would be like other presidents—a figure of decorum and dignity and respect,” Garin said. “And he was anything but [that] … at that speech.” In PRRI polling last fall, 88 percent of African Americans, 75 percent of Hispanics, and 70 percent of white voters with a four-year college degree or more agreed that he has damaged the dignity of the presidency.

Likewise, as he nears his first veto, Trump is deepening his association with an end (the border wall) and a means (the emergency declaration) that has never attracted majority support in polls and faces overwhelming opposition from all the groups that powered the Democrats’ sweeping House gains last November

…Trump’s disjointed, angry, boastful, vulgar, and divisive speech at CPAC was the clearest indication yet that he remains almost entirely uninterested in reaching out to the groups resisting him.

…Trump last weekend showed clearly that his own instinct is always to reprise the strategy that elected him in 2016: Maximize turnout among his core groups of non-college-educated, evangelical, and rural whites, even if that further inflames the groups most alienated from him.

In that way, Trump’s unstinting promises to “protect” his supporters against a changing America may expose him to greater risk from an electorate that will likely look slightly younger and more diverse in 2020 than it did four years ago. “It is a trade-off without a doubt,” Brabender said. “But it is a calculated risk by a president who feels that the trade-off is worth it. In fairness, it was the same trade-off four years ago, and it paid off. The question is whether you can do the same thing this time, when the electorate is going to change a little bit.” After last weekend, there’s less doubt that Trump is determined to find out.