Is Trump’s America on the defensive?

The question arises in the wake of two big Democratic wins on Tuesday night — Andy Beshear’s apparent ousting of Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, and the Democratic takeover of state government in Virginia.

The first of those occurred in a state Trump carried by 30 points. Campaigning in Kentucky the night before, Trump claimed that if Bevin lost, “they are going to say Trump suffered the greatest defeat in the history of the world. You can’t let that happen to me!”

He was right: This is indeed a great defeat for him. But that cannot be tolerated or even acknowledged. Which led to this, from the chair of the Republican National Committee:

This tweet, which was retweeted by the Audience of One, is getting widely mocked for its Baghdad Bob-style denial of encroaching reality. As reporters pointed out, no poll showed anything of the kind.

But the more telling thing here is McDaniel’s slavish devotion to the single-minded cause, even in apparent defeat, of propping up the Cult of Trump, by claiming his only influence on the outcome was a tremendously inflated positive one. Note that this claim rested entirely on an absurdly exaggerated depiction of Trump’s supposed super-charging of the base.

Fox News played a similar game. Watch:

All this isn’t just spin. It speaks to an absolutely central feature of Trump’s ongoing propagandistic depiction of his own political invulnerability: The idea that Trump’s base — that is, Trump’s America — possesses a kind of limitless power, reach and depth that still remains untapped.

To wit, Trump recently told an interviewer that he doesn’t need to reach out to swing voters, because “my base is so strong.” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale has said that all that matters is to “get people to show up that believe in you.”

In this narrative, reaching out to swing voters is itself a form of weakness — a kind of admission that there might not be enough people out there who unconditionally “believe in” Trump, that Trump’s America has its limits, that it’s dwindling, that it’s on the demographic defensive.

Yet the story of Tuesday’s elections is one in which the Trump base wasn’t nearly enough, precisely because swing voters in the diversifying suburbs are turning away from the Trump-era GOP.

In Kentucky, a decisive factor was the big shift toward Democrats in three very populous northern Kentucky counties — Kenton, Campbell and Boone — that form the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. Trump carried all three by enormous margins, but Beshear won the first two and cut deeply into the GOP margin in the third.

“The story of the night,” said MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, is “an extension of the national story we have been telling,” which is “the suburbs moving away from the party of Donald Trump, towards the Democratic Party.”

Notably, as Sean Trende points out, Bevin hit traditional GOP targets in rural counties, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the swamping from populated suburban counties. As Trende observed: “Same story for Republicans nationally.”

In Virginia, the suburbs were also the story. Democrats flipped at least two state Senate seats and at least five state legislative seats. This wasn’t driven just by the much-discussed demographic shifts in the northern Virginia suburbs, but also by demographic shifts in the suburbs of Richmond.

A similar story played out in local races in Pennsylvania’s suburbs, where the ongoing shift helped Democrats capture the House in 2018.

In this broader context, the GOP spin about the seemingly limitless power and reach of Trump’s base becomes a lot more interesting.

The Trump narrative about America

It’s true that we don’t know how deep Trump’s base runs, at least for the purposes of Trump’s reelection. Some Democrats do worry that Trump could still squeeze out an electoral college victory by tapping even deeper wellsprings of support among non-college-educated whites in the Rust Belt.

But the big story that Trump and his propagandists are telling about this country right now is a lie. The story is that the opposition is a shriveled minority that’s in the grip of crazed anti-Trump irrationality, embracing an impeachment push opposed by the pro-Trump majority:

The story holds that this opposition has been driven by hatred over Trump’s sensible “America First” agenda — which supposedly speaks to values held by a silent majority of Real Americans — to become the party of extremes (socialism) and of immigrants and elites who are contemptuous of that silent majority’s values (what Trump calls “the party of the Squad!").

But this is dramatically removed from reality. What’s happening now is that anger at Trump really is continuing to energize the Democratic base, while Democratic candidates speak to the middle about issues that unite Democrats and independents — against Trump.

That middle is also alienated by the other, less-discussed side of Trumpism — his embrace of GOP plutocracy and the policy failures that has produced — which is also producing major liabilities for Republicans.

Trump has fully embraced GOP hostility to Obamacare. But that drove the Democratic takeover of the House in 2018. And in Kentucky, Beshear just apparently won in part by emphasizing GOP efforts to cripple the Medicaid expansion. The Medicaid expansion was also a major issue driving the Virginia races.

“The motivation against Trump continues to fire up our base,” Jessica Post, the head of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told me, which allows “our candidates to speak to the middle by talking about issues.”

The idea that the Trump base is so vast and untapped that it can deliver him a victory with minimal swing-voter persuasion is not just spin. Trump puts it into practice daily. Trump’s spinners are valiantly claiming the latest results validate this approach. The opposite is far more likely.

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