President Trump, accompanied by Melania and Barron Trump. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Opinion writer

Earlier this year, top Republican donors sounded a loud, clanging alarm about President Trump’s reelection strategy. They leaked word to Politico that Trump has not absorbed the lessons of the GOP’s 2018 bloodbath and has lost major ground in the “blue wall” states that are crucial to reelection.

“There’s a lot of anxiety,” one GOP donor said, largely due to Trump’s evident inability to grasp how deeply his relentless focus on his base has alienated moderates and independents.

We are now learning new details about Trump’s reelection strategy, and there is zero indication that his team is taking these concerns seriously. It looks as if Trump’s operation is only leaning harder into that base-only strategy — in no small part because this strategy is being set by Trump himself.

This week, Trump will launch a fresh effort to secure an additional $8.6 billion in funding for his border wall — $5 billion in straight funding, and $3.6 billion in new military construction funds that he’s redirecting via his declaration of a national emergency. Democrats have vowed to oppose the funding, which means the possibility of another government shutdown over the wall could soon loom again.

Meanwhile, with the Senate expected to vote to terminate that emergency — because of GOP defections from Trump — he is set to veto that measure. In other words, Trump, by all indications, will continue to flood the political zone with scorched-earth fights over his wall.

A new report in The Washington Post suggests that Trump views this as a positive, or even as an imperative, as he gears up for reelection. Trump’s strategy will turn heavily on his economic nationalism — his alleged “America First” trade policies and xenophobic anti-immigration agenda.

A risky and narrow path to reelection

As The Post notes, this “relies on a risky and relatively narrow path” to reelection, one geared toward “juicing turnout among his most avid supporters,” largely in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Continuing the battle over the wall is central to this: The campaign has instructed supporters to chant “Finish the wall,” instead of “Build the wall,” to bolster the lie that Trump is getting it built.

It’s hard to see how this will win back voters that GOP donors fear Trump has alienated. Polls have shown that large majorities of independents and college-educated whites oppose the wall, disapprove of the national emergency, and crucially, don’t believe there’s an emergency on the border in the first place. Among college-educated white women in particular, opposition to the emergency is overwhelming.

Indeed, The Post reports that some in Trump’s orbit acknowledge this is a serious problem: “Some advisers are particularly concerned about the president’s persistent unpopularity among female and suburban voters.”

Yet Team Trump has an answer to this: His advisers believe the Democratic embrace of policies such as Medicare-for-all will allow them to falsely and absurdly paint the nominee as a socialist and an extremist. That remains to be seen. But we know right now that Trump’s campaign is counting on this to reverse the stampede away from the Trump-era GOP among independents, moderates and college-educated whites. It thus feels freed up to focus it all on base mobilization.

And what’s the root of the Trump campaign’s confidence in this approach? The Post report offers an answer: “Campaign officials said they follow Trump’s lead on messaging.”

The big difference between now and 2016

It is not my purpose here to predict that Trump will lose. He very well could win reelection. Trump will retain some advantages of incumbency, and as David Byler notes, it might not take that much to nudge his approval into reelection territory, particularly if the economy remains relatively good.

Instead, I want to highlight a crucial difference between 2016 and 2020 in light of Trump’s vow to run again on his virulent nationalism. The difference this time is that the American electorate has seen what this means in practice and has recoiled.

In 2016, one could squint at Trump’s nationalist immigration and trade policies and see a different kind of Republican, one who wasn’t in thrall to conventional GOP economic orthodoxy. This was surely helped by Trump’s vows to bring health-care coverage to everybody, to protect social insurance for the elderly and to take on economic elites.

But now the horrors of Trump’s immigration agenda have been vividly illustrated for all to see. The results: Immigrant children in cages, families broken up by deportations, mass protests over his thinly veiled Muslim ban and a wall obsession that’s nothing short of pathological. All this surely drove away swing voters in the midterms — Trump made those elections all about his immigration agenda — yet Trump appears unable to grasp that this rejection happened.

Beyond this, though, Trump’s economic nationalism is failing. Asylum-seeking families have spiked, unmasking cruel deterrence as an unnecessary and ineffective disaster. This is also true on trade: The trade deficit in goods has ballooned, a huge pratfall by his own (demented) metric. Trade wars have not proved “good and easy to win” because the issue turns out to be far more complicated than he ever allowed. Now he’ll probably make a face-saving deal with China, getting few concessions even as all the damage this has done is unlikely to be forgotten.

On top of all that, Trump went all in with GOP economic orthodoxy, trying to strip health care from millions and signing an enormous tax giveaway to corporations, both of which have proved deeply unpopular, and also helped fuel the GOP loss in the midterms.

In short, Trump’s economic nationalist agenda has proved to be both a failure and a fraud. This is the prism through which swing voters will likely judge his promise of four more years of the same. Yet Trump appears certain that for those voters, he can make 2020 all about the Democrats’ alleged “socialism,” and not about his own disastrous presidency.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Trump’s reelection campaign just got a lot tougher

Paul Waldman: What will Trump offer the voters next year? Probably not much.

Greg Sargent: As fresh signs of Trump’s weakness emerge, some Democrats are already screwing up