The bad news is that Trump’s decision to double down on his shrinking base could very well work — at least for a while. As it stands now, he is likely to survive 2019, limp into the 2020 election and stand for reelection as the Republican nominee. The good news is that the more he doubles down on his base, the more he guarantees that voters will oust him at the ballot box and punish the Republicans for catering to party loyalists rather than doing what is best for the country.
For the past two years, elected Republicans have refused to cross the political Rubicon of turning on their party’s leader. They won’t challenge Trump on the shutdown. They won’t challenge his illegal or immoral conduct. They won’t challenge his lies. But there are cracks in Trump’s GOP armor. House Republicans just got shellacked in the midterm elections, and that has caused at least some members of Congress to wonder whether saving Trump’s skin will cost them their own.
There are two main ways Trump could be booted from office. First, he could be impeached. That would require a palace coup — Senate Republicans would have to vote to destroy their own party’s president. Second, Trump could lose in the 2020 election, with voters sending him back to Trump Tower.
Trump will soon face the biggest threat of his presidency. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s impending report is likely to present both illegal and disqualifying behavior. Trump’s risk of impeachment is therefore imminent, while his danger of losing at the ballot box is comparatively distant — nearly two years away. Therefore, Trump’s urgent priority is just surviving 2019. If he doesn’t, he won’t even be in the 2020 election.
To survive 2019, Trump needs to make sure congressional Republicans refuse to devour one of their own. And to make sure that they don’t, he needs to make them fear a backlash from the Trumpian base more than they fear anything else. From Trump’s vantage point, it’s more important to pander to his core supporters than it is to govern the country effectively.
That dynamic is usually present only in authoritarian regimes, but it has now taken root in the United States. I’ve lived and worked in an array of countries ruled by despots and dictators. Many of those leaders pretend to have an iron grip on power, while the reality is much more brittle. But because elections are not competitive in authoritarian regimes, losing power at the ballot box isn’t a genuine threat. And that means despots only need to cater to a narrow base. So long as elites of their same political stripe are on their side, they are probably safe. But when loyalists feel both abandoned and emboldened, they may turn on the president and overthrow him. Despots pander rather than persuade.
That logic is inverted in functioning democracies. When elections are competitive, catering to the elites in your own party above the country’s interests is a recipe to lose badly in the next election. Catering exclusively to your political base is a losing strategy, too.
Of course, Trump’s America is not an authoritarian regime. Banana Republicans have been complicit as Trump attacks the institutions of democracy, but the United States is still a democratic country. So, why is Trump pandering only to people who already support him? Why is he digging in on a government shutdown that poll after poll shows is a losing issue to everyone except his die-hard political base?
In most democracies, it would be riskier to back an unpopular criminal president plagued by scandal than to challenge him. The difference in the United States is that most congressional elections are not competitive. The average margin of victory for a House seat in 2016 was 37.1 percent. Of the 20 Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2020, 13 are defending seats deemed “Solid Republican.” Four more are “Likely Republican.” As a result, most Republicans in Congress fear a primary challenger far more than they fear a Democrat.
Trump is trying to show them they’re right to be afraid. He is trying to reinforce Republican voters’ loyalty to him, so that elected Republicans in Congress believe toppling Trump would be a self-inflicted wound, one that buries them alongside him. By tossing slab after slab of red meat to those who proudly sport their red hats, Trump is making it much harder for elected Republicans to consider orchestrating a putsch against a president the base loves but the rest of the country loathes. It’s a terrible strategy for the country but not a bad one for his immediate political survival. And he might just pull it off.