This tack shows how badly he misunderstands his predicament. He needs to do more than rally a base predisposed to back their embattled leader. He needs to persuade a small but crucial share of the electorate who frequently disapproves of him but had hitherto opposed impeachment. That group’s support is crucial to his reelection and to keeping wavering Republicans on board. His current strategy is the polar opposite of what those voters want.
Those voters are predisposed to disbelieve Trump’s explanations because they are wise to his act. They see that the facts underlying the Ukraine investigation are fundamentally different from those Democrats have previously rested their impeachment hopes on. Instead of tortured Russian collusion theories and arcane interpretations of what constitutes obstruction of justice, we have a clear and simple narrative: Trump used public power to pursue private ends. Unless Trump can disprove or mitigate that narrative, he won’t persuade the voter who ultimately will decide his fate.
That person would likely value some admission of poor judgment or an apology. Ronald Reagan did this during the Iran-contra scandal, which also threatened to end in impeachment. He admitted that he hadn’t supervised his aides closely enough and that he should have known more about what was going on in his own White House. The admissions reflected poorly on him, but they saved his presidency. Trump is too personally tied to this scandal to deny responsibility, but he could admit that he displayed poor judgment and pledge to turn over a new leaf. That might help him in the court of public opinion.
That’s not going to happen, though, because it runs counter to the pattern of Trump’s entire adult life. He built his public reputation as the man whose skill and will get him what he wants. Whether it’s in business, dating and marrying beautiful women, or “draining the swamp,” the entire Trump mystique is built around the idea of the daring, infallible “stable genius” who lives the life of power and luxury that most people only dream of. This is the character he has created for himself, and he is incapable of changing the script now.
This is also why he has committed so many unforced errors in the past month. Angered by the impeachment inquiry, Trump needed to show that he could still exert his will and skill to move events. His decision to peremptorily withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria is simply an application of that principle, as was his since-retracted decision to award the contract for the Group of Seven summit next year to his own property near Miami. That both elites and average voters might be outraged by these decisions never entered his mind because he rarely tries to persuade people rather than sell himself to a niche market.
You can get rich and powerful marketing to a niche market. The Trump brand wasn’t for everyone, but it was attractive to enough people to fuel his real estate and product-branding enterprises. The Trump political persona clearly alienates millions of people, but it attracts millions of others. These people like the vision of Trump the president peddles, and like any good niche marketer, he keeps giving his acolytes what they want.
The trouble for Trump is that presidents can’t win without building larger coalitions. Trump won in 2016 because he persuaded that election’s swing voter — the person who disliked both him and Hillary Clinton — that “Never Hillary” was better for that person than “Never Trump.” Those people form the core of the person he needs to talk to now, and they aren’t buying the idea that the Democratic investigation is worse than what Trump appears to have done.
This conclusion spells near-certain doom for Trump if it persists. Trump’s reelection strategy has clearly been to rerun the 2016 campaign: hold the Trump base and coalition together and demonize the Democratic nominee, terrorizing the voter in the middle to reluctantly choose him again. That person, however, is unlikely to do that if he or she has already concluded that Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine are so bad that he should be removed from office through impeachment.
Trump’s character made him famous and gave him the presidency. Unless there’s more behind the mask he has created, however, it will also likely lead to his political demise.