Here’s a big reason the stakes this fall are so high. A Democratic takeover of the House could help curb the outsize influence that the worldview of President Trump’s base — or, at least, the fabled picture of this worldview that is often depicted in the media, and also appears to exist in the mind of Trump himself — has in shaping policy on so many fronts, something that is already having deeply destructive consequences that could get a lot worse.
Two important new pieces help illustrate the nature of this predicament and why there may be a way out of it: this one by Nate Cohn and Alicia Parlapiano digging into the nuances of the Trump electorate and the possible limits of its influence over the midterms, and this one by Adam Serwer, which argues that “white nationalism is winning.”
Cohn and Parlapiano’s analysis finds that the Trump coalition remains remarkably resilient, but also that he is losing support on its margins, and that its resilience may not be enough to enable the GOP to hold the House. Working-class white men remain gung ho behind him. But the college-educated whites and women — including mostly college-educated but also non-college-educated women — who backed him are drifting away in nontrivial numbers.
Trump prevailed due to working-class white support because that demographic was overrepresented in the few swing states he won by razor-thin margins. But Cohn and Parlapiano note that circumstances could change this fall, because working-class whites are not overrepresented in the House battleground electorate, and because Trump is softening among his more-educated voters — many women — who turn out in midterms:
White voters without a college degree typically turn out in smaller numbers in midterm elections. And turnout among college-educated voters has been unusually high in special and general elections held since Mr. Trump won the presidency.
If the patterns hold, the combination of a better-educated battleground and lower turnout among less educated voters could mean that House control is decided in districts where college-educated voters make up around 47 percent of voters, rather than the 34 percent share of such voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan in 2016, according to Upshot estimates based on census data.
Meanwhile, writing in the Atlantic, Serwer paints an alarming picture of a slow seepage of white-nationalist viewpoints into the mainstream discourse. Even if overt white supremacists are getting publicly repudiated, savvier right-wing TV personalities regularly bombard GOP audiences with more carefully couched white-nationalist arguments, which incite below-the-radar “white panic” by feeding the conviction “that American politics is a zero-sum game in which white people only win when people of color lose.”
As Serwer notes, Trump regularly feeds this sentiment, such as when he refuses to unambiguously condemn white supremacists, blasts African American athletes precisely because they are using their stature to protest systemic racism, and regularly abuses immigrants and Muslims with bigoted, dehumanizing invective. The fact that this appears to consolidate (most of) Trump’s support has persuaded him and his media enablers that “racist demagoguery plays to his advantage.”
This is taking a terrible human toll in the real world, with a rolled-back Justice Department commitment to civil rights and combating police abuses, deportation efforts targeting longtime residents with ties to communities, family separations landing thousands of children in cages, the thinly veiled Muslim ban, and the new policy of targeting legal immigrants who have benefited from the safety net, which, as Catherine Rampell points out, could harm many of their U.S. citizen children. Trump, notes Serwer, is persuaded that his base is behind his “mistreatment of religious and ethnic minorities.”
Whether or not Trump’s base monolithically backs all these things, what matters is that Trump plainly believes this to be the case. Trump pardoned racist former sheriff Joe Arpaio after getting persuaded it was “a way of pleasing his political base.” On family separations, Trump reportedly claimed that “my people love it.”
The big problem we have right now is that the worldview of Trump’s base — or Trump’s impression of that worldview, anyway — is shaping policy on multiple fronts, with immense consequences. His immigration crackdown rests on a foundation of lies about the impact of immigrants and Muslims on jobs and crime and terrorism. The Trump trade war, and his effort to upend the international order, both rest on a foundation of lies about the international distribution of tariffs and payments to NATO, which Trump surely believes is central to his appeal to his base as well. The real-world result? Deeply strained international alliances and more and more reports of layoffs.
This will not go on forever
But, if what has happened so far this cycle is any indication, these are precisely the things that are fueling the backlash among college-educated and suburban whites, particularly women, and among young voters and minorities, that could ultimately shift control of the House. Ron Brownstein reports that strategists in both parties agree that this surge, which is outpacing the energy in rural and exurban Trump country, is putting many reddish districts in play for Democrats. And the surge also reinforces the possibility, noted above, that the House battleground could prove more demographically hospitable to them.
Meanwhile, though white nationalists are clearly emboldened and Trump’s immigration agenda is spreading terror and misery, it’s unclear just how far the white-nationalist vision will get in practice. Trump’s deportation machinery is running into procedural obstacles. The GOP-led Congress won’t give him the tools he wants to get around those obstacles and to facilitate the inflicting of maximum duress on migrating families. That duress isn’t even dissuading more border-crossers. The reign of fear probably isn’t inspiring its intended mass self-deportations. One can imagine a Democratic-led House extracting a deal from Trump that protects more than 1 million “dreamers” and works out a more reasonable handling of the families, in exchange for token wall money that Trump can boast at rallies about. The relentless whittling down of refugee admissions is a humanitarian tragedy and will likely get worse, but hopefully that can get reversed later.
The fabled worldview of the Trump base will not remain the basis for many of our most consequential domestic policy arrangements and our posture toward the rest of the world forever. Of course, it remains an open question how much damage it will do first.