In the temporary unity fostered by “the resistance” to Trump and a Republican-dominated Congress, Democrats have engaged in much side-talk about which voters to target in 2018 and beyond. It may not matter much now, but as Ron Brownstein notes, it will matter a lot going into 2020, when a single presidential nominee’s strategy and vision will determine the face and voice of the Democratic Party.
Though Trump’s agenda has unified Democrats in near-term opposition, clear fault lines have quickly emerged about the party’s long-term strategy to regain power. On one side are those—largely affiliated with Senator Bernie Sanders—arguing for a biting message of economic populism, which is intended largely to recapture working-class white voters that stampeded to Trump in 2016. On the other are party strategists who want Democrats to offer a more centrist economic message, aimed primarily at reassuring white-collar suburbanites drawn to the party mostly around cultural issues.
While this long-simmering argument arouses all sorts of discussion about whether Democrats have betrayed white working class voters by pursuing Wall Street money or upper-income voters, there are some hard, cold facts that present big challenges to any reconquista project aimed at that demographic. Frank Rich bluntly described the problem with Trump’s white working class base voters over a month ago:
They will stick with him even though the numbers say that they will take a bigger financial hit than Clinton voters under the Republican health-care plan. As Trump himself has said, in a rare instance of accuracy, they won’t waver even if he stands in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoots somebody.
Recent polling has shown that Rich was not exaggerating. Despite the many missteps and flip-flops and examples of sheer floundering incompetence committed by the Trump administration in its first 100 days, only four percent of Trump voters would reconsider their support for the mogul, according to an ABC/Washington Post survey. Trump voters also see the media differently: “critical media scrutiny of him and his administration also is a sign that he’s doing something right — that he’s on their side, and the news media is the enemy,” as Greg Sargent puts it.
In other words, Trump’s hard-core white working class base isn’t weighing the evidence for and against his record in office and making a decision as to whether he still deserves their support. They literally are not listening to criticism of the president, and to the extent they are, it simply reinforces their affection for him.
An acute observer of white-working class voters, Thomas Edsall, offers a fresh warning to Democrats who count on “Trump’s broken promises” producing a backlash among his biggest fans:
[T]he bulk of Trump’s supporters have nowhere else to go, nor do they want to go anywhere. They experience themselves as living in a different world from liberals and Democrats….
Trump’s basic approach — speaking the unspeakable — is expressive, not substantive. His inflammatory, aggressive language captures and channels the grievances of red America, but the specific grievances often feel less important than the primordial, mocking incivility with which they are expressed. In this way, Trump does not necessarily need to deliver concrete goods because he is saying with electric intensity what his supporters have long wanted to say themselves.
This does not, repeat not, mean the white working class should be ignored by Democrats. Elements of that demographic still vote Democratic regularly, and others—especially younger voters—are reachable and receptive to standard progressive arguments against Republican rule. More to the point, Trump’s general unpopularity means he could be toast in 2020 if he loses support much of anywhere. There are other potential targets, moreover, of a “populist” message, including, of course, the millennials Bernie Sanders excited in 2016 far more than white working class voters.
But it’s probably not the best idea to aim the central thrust of the Democratic comeback effort at the voters most emotionally committed to Trump, particularly if the main argument is: You people are fools. They aren’t listening, and if they do, they may go back to the polls to support Trump with a real spring in their steps.
And as Tom Edsall points out in the Times, their hero understands this:
Trump can go either left or right as he betrays his campaign promises — as long as his followers believe that he is standing with them and is against what they’re against.
He has the tactical flexibility of the Devil himself.