If President Trump were to respond to the recent mass shootings — which claimed 31 lives — with a serious, sustained push for expanded gun background checks, it really might bolster his reelection chances.
After all, such a push would probably appeal to voters he needs to win back, having badly alienated them with his malevolence and depravity — suburban and college-educated white voters, particularly women, and possibly blue-collar white women who are moving away from Trump as well.
But multiple new reports are confirming that Trump — after suggesting in the wake of the carnage in Texas and Ohio that it is time to expand background checks — is again likely to abandon the idea, under pressure from conservatives and the National Rifle Association.
The Post reports that White House aides and congressional leaders now believe that Trump is “backing away” from robust action on background checks. This comes after NRA officials intensely lobbied Vice President Pence, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and GOP lawmakers.
Publicly, White House officials insist that some sort of gun-reform package is in the works. But it will almost surely consist mainly of less ambitious measures focused on mental health that Republicans can accept.
There was a time when you could squint at Trump and believe he might just defy his party on such matters. Trump vowed in 2016 to tax financial elites, excoriated his party for being willing to let people without health care die and seemed to support massive public spending to rebuild the country.
In other words, Trump would not govern as a small-government conservative ideologue and would be open to negotiated bipartisan government solutions on big issues facing the country, such as health care and our crumbling infrastructure.
Sure, Trump did mouth the usual platitudes about the Second Amendment. But expanded background checks is something that can be done without running afoul of it, and you could have imagined Trump taking this issue on, if he chose to.
But since then, a pattern has asserted itself. The main areas where Trump is truly willing to buck Republicans are ones that allow him to indulge his xenophobic nationalism and to show support and affection for other international authoritarian leaders.
Trump rarely bucks GOP orthodoxy
Trump has turned over much of his domestic agenda to the congressional GOP and the cast of plutocrats and right-wing ideologues inside the White House, going all in on the failed Obamacare repeal, the massive corporate tax cut and the rampant deregulation spree.
Yes, Trump has defied GOP orthodoxy on trade, which is sometimes depicted as displaying an economic populism at odds with his party. But in truth, his trade agenda is largely driven by his xenophobic nationalism: It allows him to bluster about China and globalist elites and treat relations with other nations as zero-sum struggles for dominance. The true economic rationale behind Trump’s trade agenda is often hard to discern.
Meanwhile, Trump has also defied some in his party by vetoing bipartisan congressional responses to Saudi Arabia after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And Trump’s laxity towards Russia has at times put him in conflict with Republicans.
In short, to the degree that Trump has been at odds with his own party (and in many cases, Republicans have ultimately let him set the agenda), it has usually been in areas where his very worst instincts — his nationalism and his alliances with strongmen and other authoritarians — have run rampant.
So it won’t be surprising if Trump does not buck his party on guns. Yet in this case, the raw politics of the matter — and I guarantee you that he has no substantive concerns on this issue one way or the other — would seem to make it a tempting option for him.
Background checks might be good politics for Trump
These mass shootings have prompted a major public discussion of whether Trump’s racist and white nationalist displays are helping to fuel right-wing extremist and white supremacist violence.
Those displays have surely helped alienate the suburban and educated whites he’ll need to win back and may also help explain why Trump appears to be struggling with non-college-educated white women, a key component of his base:
A real push on guns could appeal to those voters, but not just because they might generally support combating gun violence. As Democratic strategist Bruce Gyory points out, the confluence of Trump’s conspicuous public racism (his attacks on nonwhite lawmakers) along with the mass shootings might convince the middle of the country that Trump has become a meaningful threat to public safety and civil peace.
If so, Gyory notes, Trump’s base likely will not be enough to save him, even given his structural electoral college edge. Acting on guns might help mitigate this developing picture of Trump. Whether that substantively should mitigate this picture in a world where Trump’s racist displays keep actively harming the country is another matter; the point is Trump might theoretically have an irresistible political motive to act.
But Trump appears to see the costs of acting as more prohibitive. As the New York Times reports, Trump’s move toward backing down suggests he’s “capitulating to the views of his populist white and working-class political base” after the NRA “flooded” the White House and Congress with “phone calls.”
It’s not clear that the “populist” components of Trump’s base are deeply preoccupied with expansive interpretations of gun rights. But the Trump base and the more traditional GOP base are often hard to disentangle.
At any rate, if Trump can be convinced by cynical operators that acting will put his base is at risk, which often seems easy to do, that might prove decisive. And the NRA spent massively on Trump’s reelection, so unbridled self-interest could also do the trick.
All of which may yet again preclude any serious effort to appeal to the rest of the country.