Opinion writer

Call it Trump’s Law: The more it looks like President Trump is in political trouble on the economy, the louder he’ll crank up the dial on his hate-mongering.

The confluence of two new events neatly captures this dynamic: Trump’s rally in North Carolina on Monday night at which he fearmongered relentlessly about immigrants and socialists, and the release of a new Post-ABC News poll showing Trump’s numbers on the economy slipping perilously.

The new Post-ABC News poll paints an ugly picture for Trump. His approval rating now sits at 38 percent, a drop of 6 points since June. Approval of his handling of the economy has slipped 5 points, to 46 percent, with 47 percent disapproving.

And while 56 percent rate the economy positively, 60 percent expect a recession in the next year. An abysmal 35 percent approve of Trump’s handling of trade relations with China, vs. 56 percent who disapprove — even as 60 percent are concerned that Trump’s trade war will hike prices for them.

How can a majority rate the economy well even as Trump himself remains underwater on it? One answer is that Trump isn’t getting the credit for the state of the economy, probably because his individual economic policies remain deeply unpopular and Americans fear things are deteriorating.

Dig into the demographic breakdowns and it looks worse. The Associated Press reports that Trump advisers worry that support for Trump among moderate Republican and independent voters is very tenuous and could easily be ruptured by an economic slowdown — a reference to the more educated and suburban white voters Trump absolutely must win back.

And the Post-ABC News poll confirms those fears: Among both independents and college-educated whites, Trump’s approval is an abysmal 36 percent, and large majorities of both groups expect a recession and disapprove of Trump’s handling of China and trade. Remarkably, only 42 percent of college-educated whites approve of Trump on the economy, vs. 53 percent who disapprove.

Trump’s hate on full display

Trump jetted to North Carolina on Monday to salvage a special House election for Republicans in a district that he carried in 2016 by 11 points. Even a tight Republican victory will suggest that Trump could remain a major liability for the GOP heading into 2020; as one elections expert puts it, this race wouldn’t be at all close if it weren’t for him.

And yet, at his rally, Trump cranked up the hate-mongering to 11. He goaded his audience into venting angry abuse at reporters covering the event. He smeared undocumented immigrants as “hardened, horrible criminals.” He claimed that Democrats are releasing rapists into communities. He railed that the election is a referendum on the socialist and “America-hating left.”

That Trump needs to go to such great lengths to rev up his base — in a frantic effort to put the Republican over the top in a district he won overwhelmingly only three years ago — is remarkable.

Michael Bitzer, an expert on North Carolina politics, told me that this race captures how Trump and the GOP are caught in a trap. Because Trump has alienated more moderate and educated white voters with his performance as president, including in Republican-leaning suburbs, this forces Trump to pull out all the stops in pumping up base turnout.

“It’s almost a Devil’s bargain,” Bitzer said, noting that Trump needs to ply the base with “anger and energy to motivate them,” but that this risks alienating “moderate, college-educated white voters, especially women in the suburbs.”

And so, even if Democrat Dan McCready loses a close race, how moderate white voters in the suburbs of Charlotte break could be a key tell as to how badly Trump is still alienating those voters. If McCready somehow wins, of course, that only further underscores the point.

The interesting question is why it has come to this.

The big Trump fail

At his rally, Trump preposterously claimed that he is turning around “this big beautiful ship” known as America “very quickly,” a story that’s in keeping with his frequent lie that he inherited nothing but smoking wreckage from his predecessor that he’s rapidly converting into the greatest economy in U.S. history.

Trump also told an absurd tale about his trade war with China, falsely claiming China is paying billions and billions of dollars to the United States in tariffs and suggesting more broadly that Trump is grinding China into abject submission. Watch these videos:

But if Trump’s economy really were the greatest in history, and if Trump really were crushing China with his manly bare hands, then why would he need to work so hard to energize the base with hate and lies, and why would he be struggling to offset major alienation among independents and educated and suburban whites to bail out a Republican in a district he won overwhelmingly?

The Post-ABC News poll helps answer this question. Republicans like to say that Trump will win back those educated white voters — who are relatively affluent — when they decide his economic performance makes it worth it for them to overlook his daily lunacy. But as noted above, the poll finds that Trump’s numbers on the economy and trade among college-educated whites are terrible.

This is forcing Trump to squeeze his base ever harder and harder for votes, necessitating the sort of display we saw on Monday night. That might be enough to win a district that Trump carried by 11 points, but the frantic effort required to make this happen itself doesn’t bode particularly well for Trump and Republicans in 2020.

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