First came the tweet from former Republican congressman Joe Walsh.
“I know this is probably a really risky thing to say, but something feels different about this one,” he wrote amid the storm of outrage over President Trump’s racist attacks on four Democratic women. “Trump really stepped in it this time. This one is really going to hurt him politically.”
Then came the replies.
“I’ve said that 500 times . . . Yet to see the consequences.”
“No it’s not. If anything, it will help him.”
“You apparently haven’t been watching the same Teflon Don as the rest of us.”
In all, more than 2,500 people responded to Walsh’s prediction — the vast majority scoffing at the notion that a president who boasted during the 2016 campaign that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any supporters would suffer any serious political consequences among his base over the latest conflagration.
In Washington, forecasting Trump’s demise has become the longest of long-shot bets. Since his campaign, the president has absorbed, parried and bulldozed through ethical scandals, moral equivocations and seemingly reckless governing actions with few lasting repercussions among his core supporters.
Time and again, analysts have debated whether this or that particular Trump scandal would finally be the moment that sinks him. The “Access Hollywood” tape. The Charlottesville white-nationalist rally. The Helsinki news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Personal tax revelations from Trump’s past. The longest-ever government shutdown. Ethics violations by Cabinet members. A tariff war with China that harmed U.S. farmers. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. The special counsel report from Robert S. Mueller III.
Yet 2½ years into his presidency, Trump’s standing among Republicans is rock solid, with an 87 percent approval rating within the party, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month. His overall approval rating stood at 44 percent, not good for a president heading into a reelection campaign, but his best on record and enough for analysts to conclude that his path to victory remains viable.
“The ‘Access Hollywood’ tape — I thought, ‘Well, that’s it.’ But, gee, it wasn’t,” said Gary Abernathy, a political columnist in Hillsboro, Ohio, who once worked as a Republican operative. He was referring to the recording revealed by The Washington Post a month before the 2016 election of Trump telling host Billy Bush in a 2005 interview that he was able to kiss and grope women without their consent because he was famous.
“If that didn’t kill him, I don’t know what will kill him,” Abernathy said. “He famously talked about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue and not losing any support. Sometimes, it makes you wonder if he’s seeing just how far he can go.”
Trump appeared to have no misgivings about the latest conflagration. White House aides and allies attempted to spin his remarks from the weekend — in which he suggested four minority congresswomen “go back” to foreign countries — as a defense of American values.
But the president followed his usual playbook amid controversy — defend the original provocation, escalate the attacks and try to pin the fault on his critics. Appearing on the White House South Lawn on Monday, he lambasted the lawmakers — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — and said they should leave the United States instead of being critical.
To Walsh, a one-term House member from Illinois who hosts a political talk show, the moment struck him as different from past controversies — even Trump’s declaration that there were “good people on both sides” after white nationalists and counterprotesters clashed at a Charlottesville rally in 2017.
“I defended him on Charlottesville because I thought his remarks were misinterpreted,” Walsh said in an interview Tuesday. But the attack on the congresswomen “I just found ugly,” he said. “I never thought Trump was a racist until this one.”
On his show Monday evening, Trump supporters were defending him but they were also critical of the president’s remarks.
“The question I was asking my listeners is: What new voters did he gain?” Walsh said. “None could answer that question. This one could chip away.”
Walsh pointed to the midterm elections in the fall in which suburban voters, especially women, who had supported Trump in 2016 fled the GOP, delivering a resounding victory to Democrats, who swept into the House majority.
The Post-ABC poll reflected difficulties for Trump, showing him underwater among political independents, with 44 percent approving of his performance but 54 percent disapproving. The poll was conducted before the president’s tweet about the congresswomen.
Yet Trump appears committed to a base strategy for his reelection, and his provocations are widely viewed as efforts to fire up conservatives. In his South Lawn remarks, Trump touted his administration’s efforts to crack down on asylum seekers at the U.S. border with Mexico and his tariff war with China.
Though farmers have chafed under the administration’s trade policies, Trump touted them as “patriots” who support him.
“I never had one farmer say, ‘Please make a fast deal, sir. Please make a fast deal,’ ” Trump said. “The biggest beneficiary will be the farmers.”
A big part of Trump’s strategy has been to feed his supporters a stream of falsehoods and lies, and to pick fights with liberal Democrats and foreign leaders who provide him and his supporters with a common political foe. He also has consistently pursued racial provocations, insulting prominent black members of Congress and questioning the patriotism of black professional athletes.
Jonathan M. Metzl, a Vanderbilt University sociology professor who has researched how conservative voters support policies that harm their interests, said Trump’s critics routinely underestimate the potency of his message — even one that is outright racist — to his core supporters.
“It plays into an ‘us versus them’ formulation in which people are out to ‘take what’s ours’ — that’s the message, really,” said Metzl, author of “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.”
“When Trump frames it that way, it reaffirms that formulation: We’re under attack and I’m defending you,” Metzl said. He added: “I hate to use the word savvy, but that’s probably what it is. The more we talk about his outrageous behavior, the more it evacuates the middle ground” as Democrats move further left to counter Trump.
During Trump’s South Lawn appearance, a reporter asked if he was concerned that “many people saw your tweet as racist” and that white-nationalist groups were finding common cause with him.
“It doesn’t concern me,” Trump replied, “because many people agree with me.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.