The closing campaign strategy of President Trump and Republicans is often depicted as mainly an effort to galvanize the GOP’s blue-collar white base through fear-mongering about immigrants and incitement of racial-cultural tensions around imagery of angry Democratic mobs and protesting African American athletes.
But there’s a second piece to the strategy that’s also crucial: Trump and Republicans want college-educated white voters, particularly suburban women, to ignore all that unpleasant racial and cultural demagoguery entirely — and focus only on the economy.
It is widely observed that Democrats are favored to take back the House because of a backlash against Trump’s ugly personal characteristics and verbal displays of racism and misogyny. But it is already discernible in Trump and Republican messaging that the public has turned on the Trump-era GOP’s agenda — that is, its peculiar fusion of xenophobic ethno-nationalism with orthodox GOP regressive and plutocratic economic priorities.
Two new studies help us make sense of all these dynamics. The first one, by the Economic Innovation Group, asks a simple question: Why isn’t the good economy saving GOP incumbents in the suburbs?
As the New York Times reports, this study looks at long-term economic trends in 70 of the most competitive House districts, which are represented almost entirely by Republicans. It finds that most of them are relatively prosperous, which should buoy GOP incumbents. But here’s the rub (emphasis added):
As a group, the 70 most competitive districts have not seen their incomes grow more, or their unemployment rates drop faster, than the rest of the country since Mr. Trump took office. But they began the Trump era in better shape than the rest of the country.
In 2017, the median household income in a typical competitive district was just over $66,000, according to the Census Bureau. For the typical noncompetitive district, it was just under $57,000.
The economic well-being of these districts represents a continuation of trends that predated Trump. What’s more, a number of these districts have more immigrants in them and/or are woven into the globalized economy. As the study’s author notes, these are “dynamic places where the status quo is working rather well,” and where “globalization and immigration aren’t things to be feared.”
The second study, which was overseen by CNN’s Ron Brownstein, underscores these points. It undertook a detailed demographic analysis of all the competitive House districts, and concluded:
Democrats’ top opportunities to capture Republican-held seats are concentrated in well-educated, higher-income and preponderantly white districts. Most of these seats are centered on economically thriving suburbs around major metropolitan areas where Trump faces widespread resistance among white-collar voters, especially women.
Republicans are mostly on defense in districts that are both economically prosperous and are filled with voters who are badly alienated by Trump. Why this disconnect?
Trumpism’s story is based on lies
One likely answer is that the story Trump has told about the economy — and the country — just isn’t resonating in many of these districts. That narrative is that immigration and globalization pose major threats to the well-being of Americans, and Trump is now acting on those threats, via stepped-up deportations from the interior, efforts to slash legal immigration and refugee flows, and trade wars. That, plus his tax cut, has created the supposed “Trump boom,” in stark contrast with the economy under Barack Obama, which is uniformly depicted as a pre-Trumpian hellscape.
At the same time, Trump and Republicans have distilled down Trumpism’s core narratives into a series of ludicrous and menacing cartoons for the GOP base’s consumption. Why? Brownstein’s analysis provides an answer: Because the bulwark against truly large GOP losses in the House is made up of many districts that are competitive but are also heavily populated with blue-collar, rural, small-town, exurban and evangelical whites. Hold off Democrats in all those districts, and if they win the majority, it will be a limited one.
And so, to galvanize those voters, Trump has directed bread-and-circuses belligerence at euro-weenie elites and China. He has employed endless lies and hate-mongering to hype the migrant “caravan” into a national emergency, and will send in troops as props to dramatize the point. Republicans are running ads absurdly depicting immigrants as criminals and invaders alongside many other ones that indulge in naked race-baiting. Trump is vowing an end to birthright citizenship, confirming the ethno-nationalist underpinnings of Trumpism and further fanning the xenophobic flames.
But Trump’s political team recognizes that all this risks a backlash among more-educated white voters. So this is the $6 million ad campaign that his team is running right now, that appears to be targeting those voters:
The split in GOP messaging is notable. While Republicans employ garish race-baiting to galvanize the hard-core white GOP base, this ad’s soft-focus messaging directed at white suburban women features none of that imagery. The spot’s iconic white suburban woman is obviously conflicted over her vote — we aren’t told why, but we know full well why — but finally checks the “Republican” box out of concern over her child’s economic future.
Yet the ad’s core narrative — the contrast of the Obama hellscape with the Trump boom — is an invention, and as the first study noted above suggests, it might not even resonate in these districts. What’s more, the Trump/GOP economic agenda is being dramatically falsified as well: Trump is promising a huge middle-class tax cut that isn’t going to happen, to obscure the truly regressive nature of the actual Trump/GOP tax cut, which lavished a huge windfall on the wealthy and corporations and as such is deeply unpopular.
Republicans are also running ads vowing to protect people with preexisting conditions, yet they have also locked themselves into opposition to Obamacare, which Democrats are now campaigning on protecting. As Ezra Klein explains, this has left Republicans with no alternative but to lie relentlessly to obscure the real GOP health-care agenda, which is to deregulate insurance markets and regressively strip protections and economic assistance from millions. This, too, is deeply unpopular.
Trump and Republicans are closing by lying about health care and taxes to limit losses among suburban and well-educated white voters, and lying about immigration while race-baiting against individual Democratic candidates to keep the downscale white GOP base energized. This probably won’t be enough for Republicans to keep the House. But whatever is to be on this front, the need to lie so relentlessly about all these matters itself constitutes an admission of failure. The public has seen Trump’s fusion of ethno-nationalism and orthodox GOP plutocracy put into governing practice, and is rejecting it.