The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The public sees through Trump’s national emergency lies. A new poll confirms it.

Mitch McConnell is rubber-stamping a fake emergency, (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build his wall provides an opening to revisit something that is still not adequately acknowledged in our daily political conversation: the sheer scale and depth of the public’s repudiation of Trump’s xenophobic nationalism, and the underlying ideas and policies associated with it.

A new NPR-PBS NewsHour-Marist poll offers a particularly stark illustration of this, showing that large majorities oppose Trump’s emergency and reject the lies justifying it. The poll also suggests that the political chatter is getting this wrong in another way: We all keep saying that Trump’s emergency will thrill his base, but the new findings indicate that the segment of Trump’s base that’s excited about this may be even more shriveled than we thought.

Trump’s national emergency declaration is a sham based on nothing but bad-faith motives and invented metrics. It’s really about keeping his base energized behind him as he enters into a period of intensifying struggles over multiple ongoing investigations and, looming behind those, a brutally tough reelection campaign.

Indeed, The Post reports that Trump and his political team plan to make the wall into “one of the driving themes of his reelection effort,” which has necessitated an even more concerted effort than usual to sell the lie that it’s already being built.

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The new NPR poll finds that Americans disapprove of the national emergency declaration by 61 percent to 36 percent; that Americans do not think there is a national emergency at the border by 58 to 39; that Americans say he’s misusing his presidential powers by 57 to 39; and that 54 percent say this makes them less likely to vote for him in 2020.

But his voters support him on this, so who cares, you’ll respond. Well, here’s where the poll gets particularly interesting. It’s true that the poll finds that Trump supporters and Republicans overwhelmingly side with him on these questions.

But those people aren’t enough to win reelection for Trump. The question is whether he can duplicate his 2016 electoral college hat trick by dramatically energizing noncollege whites again, and by winning independents and others who decide they don’t like either candidate (as Trump did in 2016).

And among those groups, the poll finds surprising levels of opposition. Large majorities of independents tilt against Trump on these questions. And non-college-educated whites disapprove of the national emergency declaration by 53 to 43; they lean slightly against the idea that there’s even any emergency (49-47); and even marginally say that it makes them less likely to vote for Trump (46-41).

But guess which group is overwhelmingly behind Trump on all of this? White evangelical Christians. They approve of the declaration by 67 to 26; think there is a national emergency on the border by 70 to 22; say he’s properly using his powers by 69-23; and say this makes them more likely to vote for him by 60 to 22.

All of this suggests that Trump’s national emergency mainly appeals to the hardest of hardcore Trump supporters.

Trump’s coalition is showing ‘cracks’

This comports with a much broader trend we’ve seen. Ron Brownstein recently examined exit polling and found that in the 2018 elections, Democrats were able to make surprising inroads with non-college-educated whites — but, crucially, those were largely not evangelical Christians, who remain behind Trump’s GOP in overwhelming numbers.

As Brownstein noted, Trump’s xenophobic nativism, as evidenced in the cruel family separations and the pathological obsession with the wall, is driving “cracks” into Trump’s coalition. Untold numbers of white evangelical Christians appear to see the wall as a potent symbol of Trump’s rear-guard action to defend them from a kind of rolling cultural and demographic extinction event. But nonevangelical non-college-educated whites do not appear this revved up.

This creates an opening for Democrats, Brownstein argued, particularly in northern states where fewer working-class whites are evangelicals than in the south. The new NPR poll — in which white evangelical Christians overwhelmingly believe there is an emergency at the border and support maximal presidential power to combat it, while nonevangelical working-class whites do not — displays these fissures.

Looming in the background is another counterintuitive political dynamic: Trump’s surprising weakness in the “blue wall” states he cracked in the industrial Midwest. As Amy Walter demonstrates, Trump is underwater in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and one reason is that Trump’s nationalist trade agenda (which was supposed to explain his surprise win in those states) is not delivering.

Trump may struggle to repeat a performance in which his super-energized blue-collar white base carried him to victory against a Democrat whose partisans were less energized. Independents and other swing voters are alienated from Trump, and Democratic voters are very energized this time.

Indeed, Trump’s wall is unpopular among majorities of Americans, and especially so among the very voter groups who delivered the House to Democrats last fall. Large majorities broadly reject both Trump’s fake rationales for the wall and his major immigration policies.

It’s hard to see how things like the national emergency help with this challenge. In fact, it seems plausible that the deeper Trump reaches into his authoritarian and xenophobic nationalist toolbox to energize the hardcore segments of his base that thrill to those kinds of things, the more he’ll exacerbate these cracks and fissures among his own broader constituencies — while supercharging the energy on the other side.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Trump’s make-believe crisis is untethered from truth and reality

Ted Cruz: Make ‘El Chapo’ pay for the border wall

Greg Sargent: Trump just plunged the country into dangerous new territory. Here’s what’s really at stake.

Paul Waldman: President Trump is dragging Republicans down with him