Four weekends ago, President Trump roiled the political conversation with racist tweets suggesting that four congressional Democrats — all women, none white — “go back” where they came from. Two weekends ago, Trump disparaged Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), describing his Baltimore district as dirty and rat-infested. This weekend, Trump seized on the death of convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, a former friend of his, by retweeting two attempts to tie Epstein’s apparent suicide to Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Since Trump took office, his critics have accused him of intentionally attempting to redirect the political conversation to his benefit. It’s not clear that there really is much intentionality at play; it seems far fairer to assume that Trump is simply responding to things he sees on TV (as in the Cummings case) or on Twitter and amplifying things that resonate with him personally.
That those things also resonate with Trump’s base is why he’s president. Trump is extremely adept at reflecting the concerns of older white Americans who consume a lot of conservative media for the simple reason that Trump is an older white American who consumes a lot of conservative media. On the campaign trail in 2015 and 2016, he would say things that other candidates wouldn’t about immigrants or terrorism or the establishment and people who’d seen similar arguments in conservative media appreciated that he was willing to actually reiterate them as opposed to, you know, accurately representing immigration and terrorism.
Trump rails against Democrats and the Clintons and it lands because these are the sorts of things that people like him get mad about. That the media then — understandably! — notes the uniqueness and dangers of his doing so simply reinforces Trump’s narrative that the media is out to get him and, by extension, his supporters.
Perhaps because the tweets came out on a Saturday in August, perhaps because he simply retweeted random others instead of making the case himself or perhaps because he’d set such a high bar for triggering his opponents, Trump’s entry into the Epstein conversation didn’t make quite as much of a splash as his attacks on Cummings or the Democratic women. MSNBC mentioned Trump in the context of retweeting or Epstein 56 times on Saturday and Sunday, according to GDELT analysis of Internet Archive closed-captioning data. Fox and CNN did about two dozen times combined. By contrast, the three networks mentioned Trump’s “go back” tweets more than 250 times in the first two days.
What’s fascinating about Trump’s politics is how his obsession with political culture and media is paired with the quiet advancement of robustly conservative policies and programs. Even among his supporters, Trump’s approach to the job is seen as more important than what he’s actually doing, but what he’s actually doing is significant.
Three news stories on Monday reflected how the administration is reshaping the country in a conservative direction — even as Trump is spending a week at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J.
- The Washington Post reported that the administration would make it harder for legal immigrants to obtain green cards by putting an emphasis on ensuring that those coming to the United States would not end up using government assistance programs.
- Also on Monday, the White House finalized a rule aimed at loosening the Endangered Species Act. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross framed the move as part of Trump’s anti-regulatory efforts. The rule change might make it easier to expand oil and gas drilling.
- Bloomberg News reported that 59 federal judges have been confirmed by the Senate so far this year, bringing the total approved under Trump to more than 140, including two conservative additions to the Supreme Court.
These are the two sides to Trump. One is the president who battles the political opposition in terms that reflect the vitriol of the online and televised conversation. The other is the president who, after disparaging Barack Obama’s use of executive orders, deploys the power of the executive branch and a Senate majority to effect changes aiding conservative policies and businesses. Trump is often portrayed as the tweeter in chief, but he also moved quickly to reshape the country with the assistance of staunchly conservative politicians and activists.
The effect of this is to secure two Republican voting blocs for 2020: traditional conservatives skeptical of Trump as a person and Trump die-hards skeptical of traditional conservatives.
The two Trumps — overt culture warrior and quiet government overhauler — often blend. The administration’s move on immigration isn’t really something that business conservatives were clamoring for, but it reinforces to Trump’s base how fervently he adheres to his campaign rhetoric.
It gets directly at the heart of activist politics over the past 10 years. A study from researchers at Harvard looking at the tea party movement found that “Tea Party concerns exist within the context of anxieties about racial, ethnic, and generational changes in American society.” Immigration, they found, “worries Tea Party activists almost as much as the avowed flagship issue, deficits and spending.”
“Most Tea Party activists” with whom the researchers spoke “couch their opposition to unauthorized immigration in terms of immigrants receiving undue government support."
It’s clear that Trump’s rhetoric often gives cover for actions that would otherwise be unpopular. On Monday morning, Trump retweeted Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican Party. She was sharing a clip from NBC News’s “Meet the Press” in which farmers at the Iowa State Fair gave Trump the benefit of the doubt on his trade war with China, echoing his argument that China had been taking advantage of the United States.
The cost of that trade war is significant, prompting Trump to commit $16 billion in aid to farmers so far. Counties that voted for Trump in 2016 have received $7.6 billion, according to data obtained from the Agriculture Department by the Environmental Working Group. Counties that voted for Clinton have received $700 million.
The 2020 election is still more than 14 months away. Over that time, we’ll continue to see Trump’s two-track approach to the presidency, the one his base loves in which he battles liberals on social media and at rallies and the one conservatives and Republicans love in which he reshapes the judiciary and erases regulations.
His goal is simple: get enough Republicans on board to make wooing Democrats unnecessary to win reelection. It’s risky — but it might just be possible.