The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s focus on pleasing his most ardent supporters raises questions about reelection strategy

Republicans and Democrats are continuing to blame each other for the ongoing partial government shutdown, which is now in its second week. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s headstrong refusal to reopen the federal government without new border wall funding has set him on a risky and defiant path for 2019, relying on brazen brinkmanship to shore up his base support and protect him ahead of a challenging year for his administration.

The latest overtures in the wake of the midterm elections, which brought about sweeping Democratic gains and the end of GOP control of Congress, stand in stark contrast to the historical behavior of modern presidents, who have moved at least briefly toward the political center after being humbled at the ballot box.

But Trump — counseled by a cadre of hard-line lawmakers and sensitive to criticism from his allies in the conservative media — has instead focused on reassuring his most ardent supporters of his commitment to the signature border pledge that electrified his followers during his 2016 presidential run even though it is opposed by a majority of voters.

The president has rejected the advice of Republican pollsters and strategists to declare that he holds a winning hand, predicting in a series of tweets that even losing the clash over border construction will lead him to reelection, all while threatening to “close” the border if Democrats do not blink on his $5 billion request for a new wall.

“This is only about the Dems not letting Donald Trump & the Republicans have a win,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. “They may have the 10 Senate votes, but we have the issue, Border Security. 2020!”

Trump politicizes deaths of two immigrant children to score points in border wall fight

Trump’s fervent appeals to his supporters — not just on the wall but in his sharpening criticism of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome H. Powell, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and Democrats — leave him both emboldened and hamstrung heading into the new year, according to top Republicans and Democrats. While he is galvanizing his base amid political and economic uncertainty, he is also making it difficult to work with Democrats or recast his own presidency.

President Trump's holiday plans were changed by a government shutdown, a death at the border and unsettled stock markets. (Video: Joyce Koh, Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

His current stance on the government shutdown reinforces a central tenet of Trump’s career: Choosing base politics over a broader pitch and applying a one-dimensional pugnacity to whatever obstacle looms, often replete with bursts of misleading or inaccurate statements.

Republican critics, such as veteran strategist Mike Murphy, say Trump is threatening the GOP by “learning nothing from November and playing to the third of the country that he already has.”

“He’s trapped,” Murphy said. “He’s playing poker holding two threes and suddenly putting all of his chips in. It’s pure emotion, the mark of a panicking amateur.”

Democrats see a president unready for the siege coming in the new year from empowered House Democrats and developments in the special counsel probe of Russia’s role in the 2016 election — and flailing as the financial markets endure a roller-coaster of highs and lows.

Democrats have also pointed to another recent online poll by Morning Consult showing a six-point decrease in Trump’s approval rating since mid-November as evidence that their position remains strong even as the effects of the shutdown become more severe.

“I don’t think you can get elected president of the United States with 39 percent of the population supporting you,” said Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Talking only to your base while alienating the rest of the entire country is not a recipe for success.”

As the shutdown drags on, Trump’s dogged base politics have left him little leverage to force Democrats to comply with his wishes, an ominous reality as Pelosi is expected to win the House speakership in the coming days and then mostly ignore Trump’s calls for wall funds as she asserts herself within the confines of divided government.

Pelosi, in a recent interview with USA Today, mocked Trump’s ultimatum as the battle cry of a weakened executive searching for a legislative fig leaf: “Now he’s down to, I think, a beaded curtain or something, I’m not sure where he is.”

Some Republican pollsters have also been watching the president’s tactics with concern, noting that there is little evidence he has grown his electoral coalition after the 2016 election, when he won the White House despite losing the popular vote.

“The problem is that the base is nowhere close to a majority of the nation,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said. “In a government of the people, for the people and by the people, it sure helps to have a majority of the people behind what you are trying to do.”

White House officials and Trump friends say the president is unbound from convention and party, arguing that he is going with his gut instincts and shrugging off calls for a more traditional approach, including his decision to end the U.S. operation in Syria, where roughly 2,000 troops are deployed. That policy shift prompted Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign in protest, rattling senior Republicans who have long viewed Mattis as a stabilizing force who guarded against the president’s impulses.

“It’s a preview of things to come,” former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum (R) said of Trump’s recent moves. “He feels like he listened to too many people who told him he’d get the wall next year and he didn’t get it. So now he’ll fight for something he believes in.”

In the days before Christmas, when several options to end the shutdown were floated, Trump dismissed them and told several advisers that the political benefit with his base for “fighting and fighting” for the wall outweighed any political cost and was a necessity for keeping “my people” engaged, according to two Trump advisers familiar with the discussions.

Trump’s blizzard of tweets on the shutdown, before and after his trip to Iraq this past week to visit U.S. troops, repeatedly played to his core voters, many of whom see illegal immigration as an urgent national emergency that necessitates a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Friday that Trump would stay in Washington through the new year — and Trump readily amped up his rhetoric on Twitter.

“We will be forced to close the Southern Border entirely if the Obstructionist Democrats do not give us the money to finish the Wall & also change the ridiculous immigration laws that our Country is saddled with,” Trump tweeted.

Earlier in the week, while at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq, Trump’s base politics were on display as he blamed Pelosi for the impasse, telling reporters that “Nancy is calling the shots” and that “the American public is demanding a wall” — sparking criticism for injecting politics into an apolitical setting.

As Trump has rallied, House Democrats say they believe their leverage has only increased. They have repeatedly highlighted Trump’s claim this month that he would be “proud to shut down the government for border security,” which was made in a televised meeting with congressional leaders where Trump expressed dismay with Democrats by acting as an avatar for his base voters.

Trump’s tactics stand apart from those of recent presidents who have endured midterm losses. Barack Obama in 2010, George W. Bush in 2006 and Bill Clinton in 1994 all expressed some self-awareness of voters’ dissatisfaction after watching their party lose control of the House. They subsequently spent time reaching out to the other side about bipartisan efforts, with varying records of success. Bush called his party’s stumble a “thumping” and Obama called the 2010 election “humbling” and a “shellacking.”

Former Obama advisers said part of the reason for that response in 2010 was the necessity of adapting and improving the president’s standing for his reelection campaign.

“I don’t think there was ever a time during any of the Obama presidential campaigns where the strategy was predicated on doubling down on our base,” said Joel Benenson, who served as lead pollster for both of Obama’s national campaigns. “You don’t win presidential elections with your base, typically.”

In his first news conference after the midterms, in which Democrats flipped 40 House seats, Trump declared that “we did very well last night,” highlighting Republican pickups in the Senate and some successful gubernatorial races. He blamed several losing members in the House for their own defeats, saying they had erred by failing to embrace him, a claim that is undercut by polls in their districts showing his unpopularity.

Trump has also reacted to the midterms by closely eyeing conservative media organs and huddling with deeply conservative members of the House GOP, such as Rep. Mark Meadows (N.C.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), who have encouraged a hard line.

“I can tell you, if they believe this president is going to yield on this particular issue, they’re misreading him, misreading the American people,” Meadows said Thursday on CNN.

One longtime Trump adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said Trump has been “spooked” not by the midterms but by a brewing rebellion on the right earlier this month when he was considering accepting a deal from Democrats to fund the government through early February. Rush Limbaugh dismissed the potential compromise program as “Trump gets nothing and the Democrats get everything.” Another firebrand, Ann Coulter, published a column titled “Gutless President in Wall-less Country.”

“He’s spooked by what the world would be like for him if the base wasn’t there” for whatever comes from the Mueller probe or House investigations, the Trump adviser said, adding that the volatility of Wall Street has increased Trump’s private frustrations to include not just Democrats and the media but the Federal Reserve.

Trump’s current border stance has polled poorly. A Quinnipiac University poll in mid-December found that 62 percent of the country, including 65 percent of self-identified independents and one in three Republicans, oppose shutting down the government over wall funding. The same poll found that Americans oppose building a wall on the Mexican border by 54 to 43 percent.

Some Trump allies, however, said Trump is savvier than his stubborn tweets let on, suggesting that the president must play to his base and show solidarity on the wall if he wants to move on at some point in 2019 and turn his attention to other issues such as infrastructure or health care.

“It’s de facto playing to the base so he can get it done and move on,” said longtime GOP consultant John Brabender, who has advised Vice President Pence. “He can’t get reelected with only his base, but he needs the symbolism of what he’s doing so they don’t go away. It’s about his credibility with them and talking about it now so eventually he can talk about other issues.”

Trump’s 2016 victory was dependent on winning over white voters in the Midwest who did not attend college by using populist and nativist pitches, and some officials and allies continue to believe he can repeat the same success.

In a 2018 study of the nation’s changing demographics, Brookings Institution political scientist Ruy Teixeira concluded with his colleagues that increasing margins and maintaining turnout among this group provided Republicans the greatest opportunity to continue to win the White House.

If Republicans expanded Trump’s 2016 margin among non-college whites by a hypothetical 10 percent and other voting patterns are unchanged, the party could keep winning the electoral college through the next five presidential elections, the report concluded, overcoming the growing diversity in the general electorate and even losses in the popular vote.

“It’s the way to finesse the structure of the electoral college,” Teixeira said. “White non-college, in the center of the country.”