Ever since Donald Trump shocked the world by winning the presidency in 2016, there has been a premium on political pundits and journalists locating his Secret Political Genius. This long-running search is irresistible for three main reasons: 1) It’s a fascinating political parlor game; 2) The subject is universally interesting; and 3) It provides a bunch of contrarians the chance to buck the conventional wisdom.
Such is the case with Trump’s racist tweets this weekend. While your surface-level analyst would swear it’s bad politics to tell nonwhite congresswomen to go back to their countries (even though they were born in America), plenty have argued Trump’s got something up his sleeve. It’s just smart base politics, they say. It’s tricking the media and Democrats into overreacting, others say. And then there’s the longest-running bit of amateur analysis: It’s a distraction — from the ICE raids, or his asylum changes, or the Jeffrey Epstein scandal or . . . something.
“Forget the man’s tweets; he’s playing us like a Stradivarius,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) pleaded Wednesday morning on CNN.
Here’s why this is all overwrought.
Trump’s 2016 win
A big reason we’re all searching for Trump’s Secret Political Genius is that we’re still trying to figure out how we could have gotten 2016 so wrong. He must know something we don’t, after all.
But what if it was a fluke? Well, to some degree, it was. And it was a fluke that we all should have known was a possibility.
Trump won the presidency by winning three key states — two of which (Michigan and Wisconsin) Hillary Clinton clearly neglected — by less than 1 percentage point each. He did so despite losing the popular vote. He took less of the popular vote than Mitt Romney did (47 percent) in his 2012 loss and about as much as John McCain did (46 percent) in his lopsided 2008 loss. He did so against the other most unpopular presidential nominee in modern political history. It was a perfect storm.
And despite those embarrassing predictions, it was hardly unfathomable. FiveThirtyEight put his odds of winning at 29 percent on election night — right between a 1-in-4 and 1-in-3 shot. Given his narrow wins in the most closely decided states, that looks about right.
All of which is to say: Just because Trump eked one out in 2016 doesn’t render all of his political instincts the stuff of a prodigy. Elections are binary, and you just have to beat what’s in front of you. If Trump showed a talent in 2016, it was for pulling Clinton down to his own level; we may never know whether that was because he was so good at it or because she was already a hugely polarizing figure and/or bad candidate. We can imagine he’ll try it again in 2020.
The dodgy wisdom of the base strategy
Given the events of 2016, it’s not surprising Trump has pursued an almost single-minded base strategy as president. You dance with the one that brought you, after all. And frankly, it’s not clear he’s got another mode.
But just because it worked in one election doesn’t mean it will work in the next one — or even that it’s the best strategy for the times.
Trump’s approval in the GOP is very high, but overall it has stayed steady in the mid-to-low 40s. And polling suggests that might not be enough. Majorities of voters in some polls already say there is no way they’ll vote for him, he trails Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in pretty much every national poll, and he even trails some lesser-known Democrats. As an incumbent president, that’s not where you want to start.
And then consider the setup he’s got: historically low unemployment and a historically high stock market. Given that economy, his approval rating should be much higher and he should be in great shape in his reelection campaign. If anything, the fact that he faces anything amounting to a difficult campaign is an indictment of his choice of a base strategy. Imagine a world in which Trump even tried to be more presidential and to unite the country. It shouldn’t really be close. This is exactly the wrong campaign for the situation he finds himself in.
It’s entirely possible Trump will win reelection — and if he does, you can bet people will again point to his Secret Political Genius — but he’s hardly set himself up as the favorite. And given the fundamentals, that’s remarkable.
Provocation vs. strategy
Apart from tearing apart his opponents, Trump’s other main skill is making himself the story. But his racist tweets — apart from the moral considerations — are a good example of a time he probably shouldn’t have done that.
That’s because last week was characterized by plenty of infighting between “the squad” and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). After Pelosi said a series of dismissive things about them, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) responded by apparently suggesting Pelosi was singling them out because of their race. By Friday night, the main House Democratic Twitter account actually posted a tweet attacking Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti — a remarkable choice that House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries’s staff would soon confirm was intentional. Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, called Chakrabarti a “snot-nosed punk.”
Were it not for Trump’s tweets, that burgeoning civil war would have had a chance to play out. Instead, these Democrats saw their own internal discord papered over. Provocateurs like Ocasio-Cortez were reminded of the common enemy. A momentary crisis was averted. A savvier strategy would seem to be to needle the Democrats into fighting among each other some more, rather than totally eclipsing their infighting and giving them time for cooler heads to prevail.
And now it appears the chosen strategy has led to some predictable discomfort. After a rally crowd crowd seized upon Trump’s “go back” rhetoric and chanted “send her back” about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) on Wednesday night, those close to Trump reportedly prevailed upon him to express his disagreement. Except this was the inevitable conclusion of the argument Trump was making; anybody who didn’t see it coming was burying their head in the sand.
It seems more than anything that Trump just couldn’t help himself, and the people around him have to turn that into something amounting to a strategy. And that seems to be the unifying theme here.
To apply some kind of a master plan to all this is tempting — and I don’t doubt Trump intends to do what he does. But just because it’s intentional doesn’t mean it’s smart. And just as Trump’s personal biography and business career often have failed to live up to the legend, his political acumen may not be all it’s cracked up to be either.