The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s base is not enough, and his own advisers know it

President Trump speaks at the White House on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

It will not surprise you to learn that President Trump just gave a speech that was full of distortions, this time about his record on the environment and climate change.

But it might surprise you to learn why Trump gave this speech: in part because his advisers are trying to mitigate the damage he’s sustained among millennial and suburban female voters.

This would seem to undercut Trump’s public bravado about his reelection chances. Trump recently mused in an interview that his base is “phenomenal,” and, when asked whether he needed to expand his appeal beyond it, said: “I think my base is so strong, I’m not sure that I have to do that.”

Apparently Trump’s own advisers disagree. And the remedies they’re seeking for the problem they’ve identified tell us something interesting about the reelection challenges Trump faces.

The New York Times reports that internal polling for Trump’s campaign revealed that his environmental record is a key obstacle to winning millennials and suburban women. Those demographics, of course, helped drive the Democratic takeover of the House in 2018 amid a sizable national popular vote win.

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According to a senior administration official who reviewed the polling, Trump might not win voters who feel strongly about climate change, but it showed that a certain type of moderate who likes the economy might feel okay about Trump if she is persuaded he’s being “responsible” on environmental issues.

Hence Trump’s latest speech, in which he claimed that he has made it a “top priority” to preserve “the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet.” Trump actually mouthed the words that we have a “profound obligation to protect America’s extraordinary blessings for the next generation and many generations, frankly, to come.”

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But as New York Times fact checker Linda Qiu documents, the speech was full of distortions. Trump absurdly took credit for environmental improvements secured under his predecessors. He also misleadingly claimed the United States is leading other countries in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, when in fact our reduction as a percentage of overall emissions — a much more meaningful metric — trails many others.

In reality, Trump has sought to dismantle multiple efforts to combat global warming. His Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing a new rule to replace former president Barack Obama’s effort to curb emissions from coal plants, which will undermine progress, as well as another one rolling back tailpipe emissions standards. Trump is pulling out of the Paris climate deal.

Trump is doing all this, even though a comprehensive assessment by over a dozen federal agencies — within his own administration — concluded that global warming poses a dire future threat to U.S. interests. Trump dismissed this finding by saying: “I don’t believe it.”

What’s interesting here is the apparent need to obscure all of this, and to reposition Trump (try not to burst out laughing here) as mindful of the obligation to preserve our natural inheritance for future generations.

Trump’s reelection challenges

The brute demographic facts of the matter are as follows. Trump won in 2016 despite losing the national popular vote by nearly 3 million, by scraping out the barest of wins in industrial Midwestern states with disproportionately large populations of blue-collar white voters. Trump’s victory also relied on a falloff in turnout among younger and non-white voters, relative to 2012, and a somewhat larger margin among college-educated whites than expected.

But in 2018, these things reversed. Turnout among minorities, young voters and college-educated whites expanded by greater percentages, relative to the previous midterm elections, than it did among non-college-educated whites, and they broke toward Democrats. In 2020, those trends are expected to continue.

This does not necessarily solve the problem for Democrats. Supercharged turnout among blue-collar whites could help deliver Trump a second term, thanks to his advantage in the electoral college, which rests on the fact that the Midwestern “blue wall” states Trump cracked are not diversifying as quickly. This has led Democrats to strategize over how to win back those non-college-educated white voters, as they should.

But as Ron Brownstein has reported, Democrats can also win back those states in part by driving up turnout and vote share among the young, non-white and suburban, socially liberal whites, particularly women, who are now badly alienated by Trump. (Yes, those voters do exist in those states.) And Trump’s own advisers plainly worry about this.

Trumpism is driving people away

Trump’s climate and environmental agenda showcases some of Trumpism’s worst qualities: the anti-regulatory, science-denying GOP orthodoxy; the lies about bringing coal roaring back; the “America First” disdain for international engagement to solve global problems. Indeed, as Jedediah Purdy has noted, it also denotes an amoral “politics of grabbing what you can,” a central tenet of Trumpism.

Republicans sometimes say Trump might turn things around among college-educated and suburban whites by toning down the craziness and racism, so they vote for him based on the economy. But it’s evident that the policy side of Trumpism, not merely his personal qualities, are also alienating them.

Indeed, it’s no accident that Trump has been falsely claiming that migrant detention was worse under Obama and that Obama was responsible for starting family separations. Large majorities now favor allowing Central American refugees to apply for asylum and legalizing undocumented immigrants. Trump’s cruelties are driving majorities toward a more pro-immigrant position — and away from Trumpist nationalism — and the percentages of young voters, women and college-educated whites who hold those positions are overwhelming.

Trump certainly could win reelection. He retains the advantages of incumbency and a good economy. But Trump’s base alone is not enough to do so, and his own advisers know it.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Want to beat Trump in 2020? Register people to vote.

Henry Olsen: If the latest polls are right, Trump is favored to win reelection

Paul Waldman: Trump: I can win reelection with just my base

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik: It’s easy to see how Trump can win reelection

David Byler: Everyone is underestimating Trump. It could hurt Democrats and Republicans alike.