In discussions of the president’s latest experimental excursion into racism and hate-mongering, his MAGA “base” is often treated as a monolith, as in this comment from Stephen Collinson:
The most shocking thing about Donald Trump’s racist tweets is that possibly the most fundamentally un-American outburst of modern presidential rhetoric did not come remotely as a surprise.
The second most shocking aspect of an episode that would have rocked any other administration is that the President knows he can trade in such base tactics because he will pay no price in a Republican Party cowed by his fervent political base.
That’s generally accurate, but it’s worth looking a little more deeply at the views of Trump’s “base” understood not as the people coming to his rallies and chanting “send her back” right now, but as those who lifted him to the presidency in 2016. And as the intrepid analyst Ron Brownstein explains, Trump’s hate offensive could cause him some problems in the soft underbelly of the white working-class demographic that was so important in his victory over Hillary Clinton:
[P]olling throughout Trump’s presidency has indicated that his belligerent and divisive style raises more concern among women voters than men in one of his most important cohorts: the white working class. And a new set of focus groups in small-town and rural communities offers fresh evidence that the gender gap over Trump within this bloc is hardening.
The focus groups in question were convened by Democratic pollster and strategist Stan Greenberg, a legendary chronicler of white working-class views who has long argued that white working-class women are significantly more winnable for Democrats than their male counterparts. As Brownstein notes, these women and their cooling attitudes toward Trump were a significant factor in the 2018 midterms:
Data measuring the 2016 vote show that Trump expanded the GOP margins with these women to the highest level in years: His advantage ranged from 21 percentage points, according to calculations by Catalist; to 23 points, according to Pew; to 27 points, according to the exit polls.
But in 2018, Republicans sagged among these women. Nationally, GOP House candidates still won their vote overall, but by less robust margins than Trump did two years before: 14 points per the exit polls and 17 percent per the Catalist calculations. And Democrats in 2018 generally performed much better with these voters in marquee Senate and governor’s contests in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. (Only in the Senate race in Michigan and in the governor’s race in Wisconsin did Republicans retain a solid lead with these voters.)
Greenberg’s focus groups showed a distinct aversion to Trump’s divisiveness among white working-class women who otherwise liked his policies:
The women weren’t immune to Trump’s arguments on immigration. In the groups, many agreed with him on two fronts: that there is a crisis at the southern border, and that undocumented immigrants represent an economic threat because they are “willing to work for peanuts,” as one woman put it.
But among the women, those areas of agreement were mitigated by other concerns about Trump, including their belief that, on immigration, “his rhetoric … made him sound ‘racist’ or ‘ignorant,’” as the report notes. “There were a lot of mentions of intolerance in reaction to what he was saying and doing,” Greenberg says.
That recoil represents one component of the broader unease these women expressed about the level of acrimony and division under Trump. While the men almost entirely found ways to justify Trump, the women expressed much more discomfort about the way he talks about race-related issues, his overall style, and whether he respects women. “The women are not making excuses for him,” says Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which commissioned the research. “What you’re seeing is a big difference between decency and bombast. And these women are saying, ‘This guy is bombastic; he’s disrespectful.’”
While this intra-white-working-class gender gap represents an opening for Democrats against Trump, it’s not the only variable affecting this demographic going into 2020, Brownstein notes:
This week’s NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll suggests that non-college-educated white women are essentially just as hostile as working-class white men to vanguard liberal ideas that have emerged in the 2020 Democratic presidential race. Those issues include a single-payer health-care plan that would eliminate private insurance, allowing undocumented immigrants access to any federally funded health-care plan, and decriminalizing unauthorized crossing of the U.S. border.
If Trump were being purely strategic, he’d tone down the hate-rage and the racism while continuing to pound away at the vulnerable points of the progressive agenda. But that may not be in his DNA. And it’s possible the joy he takes in turning Americans against each other could be his undoing.