In late January, 100 conservative megadonors assembled at the Trump International Hotel for a presentation on the Republican president’s strategy for winning reelection. Many did not like what they heard. But it’s hard to blame Trump’s team for disappointing the GOP’s top shareholders, when the latter’s expectations were wildly unrealistic. As Politico reports:
[GOP donors] are chiefly worried about how [the president] intends to prevail again in the Rust Belt states that voted for Trump in 2016, but where Democrats performed strongly in last year’s midterms. But there are also concerns about whether the president’s fundraising apparatus is up to the task, and whether Trump will trample on any strategy or message the campaign does develop, as he frequently does …
“The problem is the president can’t and won’t stay on message, push an issue in any kind of sustained way, stay out of trouble for more than 5 minutes,” said another Republican donor who attended the retreat at the Trump hotel.
… According to two attendees, campaign officials acknowledged that Trump is under-performing in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, though they said he is holding steady in Florida and trending upward in Ohio. But they offered no details on what they’re doing to regain ground in the Midwest, the attendees said.
“Donors are asking for the plan and they have no plan,” said an outside adviser close to the campaign. “There’s not a strategy.
In the abstract, the reactionary plutocrats’ complaints are perfectly understandable. When your average presidential campaign admits it is on track to lose the Electoral College, said campaign will typically hasten to assure donors that it has a plan for improving its margins in tipping-point states. Trump’s, by contrast, ostensibly told their bankrollers not to worry about Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — or the 2018 midterm results — because the president’s numbers still look great in a different midwestern state that he won by 8 points the last time around. And of course, as a general matter, it is reasonable for high-dollar donors to demand a modicum of message discipline from the candidates they invest in.
And yet, by the time the Republican Party’s patrons gathered at the president’s property last month, Donald Trump had been the central figure in American politics for three and a half years. At that point, what could Brad Parscale — Trump’s former digital marketing consultant and current campaign manager — possibly say to persuade GOP donors that Trump isn’t going to staff his 2020 reelection effort with underqualified loyalists, whose “campaign strategy” will consist primarily of post-hoc rationalizations for whatever their boss feels like tweeting on any given day?
Asking this president not to surround himself with yes-men and nepotism hires is to demand he abandon his entire philosophy of governance; asking a senescent narcissist — with an addiction to livetweeting Fox News — to “stay on message” is to demand the impossible.
Parscale could have told donors that Trump had learned a lot from his party’s defeats in 2018. He could have offered a coherent account of how the president aims to beat back the “blue wave” in 2020. To give this narrative some plausibility, Parscale could even have pointed to the myriad moderate gestures in the president’s last State of the Union address: among them, his celebration of criminal-justice reform, appeals to “Lean In” feminism, and calls for lower drug prices and higher infrastructure spending.
But the nervous oligarchs would have no reason to believe any of this. Mere days after Trump’s called for redressing racial disparities in America’s carceral system on national TV, he was tweeting jokes about the Trail of Tears. All available data might indicate that Trump’s base is unshakably loyal, while his approval with suburban social moderates is shaky at best. But Sean Hannity insisted that Trump needed to declare a (profoundly unpopular) national emergency so as to fund his (mildly unpopular) border wall. And since the president cares more about how he’s portrayed on his favorite television shows than he does about virtually everything else, Hannity’s wish was Trump’s command.
Finally, it’s unreasonable to expect Trump to learn from his party’s 2018 woes, as that would require him to accept some responsibility for a past failure (an endeavor that ranks just below jogging on the mogul’s list of favorite activities). By all accounts, the president has concluded that his decision to center the midterm campaign on a fictional invasion by Central American migrants was a smashing success, and might well have saved the GOP’s House majority if Democrats hadn’t logged millions of illegal votes in Texas and California. Meanwhile, instead of seeking ways to adjust Trump’s message to new polling data, his campaign team appears hell-bent on adjusting polling data to affirm whatever the president decides to say or do. As Politico reported last month:
Trump has been buoyed by polling commissioned by his 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, suggesting that the government shutdown wasn’t as damaging to him as several other public polls had shown. He immediately demanded an Oval Office briefing on the poll numbers, which indicated that while a plurality of voters in ten congressional districts blamed Trump for the shutdown, they also supported his push for a border wall.
The polling in question covered ten historically Republican congressional districts that Democrats won last November. In 2016, Trump won these ten districts by an average of 12 percentage points. In the survey that “buoyed” the president, his approval rating among voters in these ten districts is only one percentage point higher than his disapproval rating. Which is to say: The survey (that purportedly vindicated Trump’s shutdown strategy) suggested that he had lost significant support among swing voters since 2016, an election in which he barely eked out an Electoral College majority on the strength of fewer than 80,000 votes.
Now, none of this means Trump can’t win reelection, or that the GOP donor class would be unwise to invest in him. In 2016, the mogul’s campaign proved to be “the little garbage fire that could.” But the right’s entitled plutocrats should make peace with the fact that their party’s fate rests in the hands of an incompetent con man. They might prefer to invest in a more professional enterprise. But, as Trump has incessantly reminded them in recent days, the choice before GOP megadonors is buffoonish barbarism or “democratic socialism” (a.k.a. a slightly more progressive tax code). And they know damn well which one they prefer.