Donald Trump once suggested that he could commit a murder in the middle of Fifth Avenue without alienating a single core supporter. The first 33 months of his presidency have done little to discredit that hypothesis.
The president promised his base that a Trump administration would bring them a border-spanning wall financed by Mexico, a vastly reduced trade deficit, a balanced budget, and tax reforms that benefited the middle-class but “not the wealthy and well-connected.” Instead, he has delivered massive tax breaks for the one percent, a historic increase in the national debt, higher trade deficits, and — if all goes right — a few hundred miles of border fencing financed by raiding funds that had been earmarked for U.S. troops.
None of these broken promises — nor any of Trump’s forays into naked corruption, neo-Nazi apologia, FBI bashing, or mass child torture — has shaken the GOP base’s faith in its standard-bearer. The president commands a historically robust approval rating among Republican voters.
His standing with the rest of the electorate is another story. Despite presiding over the tightest labor market in decades, Trump has won few converts — and bled no small number of marginal supporters — since taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His approval rating currently sits at just over 41 percent. That lackluster figure may have been sufficient in 2016, when Trump’s Democratic rival was historically unpopular, and the GOP nominee managed to win voters who disliked both candidates by double digits. But recent polling suggests he won’t be so lucky the next time round. A Fox News survey released last month found that, in a hypothetical general election between Trump and Joe Biden, voters who disliked both men broke for the former vice-president by 33 points.
Given this landscape, a rational president would be scrounging for ways to broaden his appeal through triangulation on a high-salience issue. And in recent weeks, Republican donors and pollsters have tried to gently steer the president toward one such opportunity.
In late August, the GOP-aligned firm Public Opinion Strategies conducted a survey to discern how various gun-safety measures polled with female voters in five heavily suburban swing congressional districts. They found that 90 percent of such voters, including 85 percent of those who identified as independents, supported requiring universal background checks for gun purchases. Critically, support for gun reform was not merely broad but deep: After the summer’s spate of mass shootings, independent women voters in these battleground districts ranked gun reform as the most important issue facing their country.
The behavior of Republican lawmakers and donors in recent weeks lends credibility to these results. Several of the latter warned their party that inaction on gun safety put them at risk of “extinction in the suburbs,” where the party had suffered massive losses during the 2018 midterms. Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, signaled that he was prepared to rally his caucus behind whichever gun reforms the president was prepared to support.
In the wake of the mass murders in El Paso and Dayton last month, Trump vowed to implement “very meaningful background checks.” But that resolve quickly dissipated. And on Friday, the New York Times got wind of his reasoning:
Inside the White House, the issue of new gun control measures has largely been theoretical. Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, has cautioned that it will be the president who will have to press his party to act. To help guide Mr. Trump’s decision-making, White House aides commissioned a poll to determine where his supporters stood on different measures … [T]he polling data, White House aides said, indicated that the issue does not help the president with his core base of supporters, according to the people briefed on the meeting.
If this report is accurate, then the administration has taken a wildly irrational approach to assessing its own political self-interest on gun policy. Why would the White House be primarily concerned with whether gun reform would “help the president with his core base of supporters” — who, by definition, are the voters the president needs the least “help” with? Surely, “Will this be enough to make meaningful inroads with swing voters?” is a more relevant question here than “Would passing new gun regulations make the GOP base even more pro-Trump than it is already?”
Of course, it isn’t wholly irrational for a president with a small base of support to evince some concern for retaining his supporters’ enthusiasm. But if Trump could persuade his base that raiding the Pentagon’s budget to build some border fencing is tantamount to building a wall on Mexico’s dime, it’s hard to see how he couldn’t get them to swallow modest gun reforms that poll quite well with Republicans writ large in public surveys. The president might take some heat from corners of conservative talk radio. But is there any real question that the far-right infotainment complex will be with him when it counts? If Trump signs universal background checks into law this fall, will that really stop Hannity and Limbaugh from spending next summer hyperventilating about how the election of a Democratic president will mark the end of America as we’ve known it? Given the stability of the GOP base’s support for Trump, and the reliability of conservative media to back the Republican standard-bearer in campaign season, there’s simply no rational basis for the president to prioritize his core supporters’ views on gun reform over those of independent female voters in purple suburbs.
The most plausible explanation for why Trump is setting such a priority anyway is that his White House is staffed almost entirely by conservative-movement ideologues — and those ideologues have discerned that the best way to prevent their opportunistic boss from straying toward the center is to exploit his deep fear of losing the love of his superfans.
Every time Trump flirted with striking a compromise on immigration in his presidency’s early going, Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller put the fear of the Trumpen proletariat in their boss. And the Times’ reporting suggests that the advisers who are counseling the president on the politics of gun reform may not be entirely impartial: According to the paper, Trump’s commitment to background checks “appeared to soften amid concerns from the National Rifle Association and some of his closest advisers.”
Being ruled by a gullible narcissist whose fragile ego makes him easy prey for his coterie of extremist advisers is less than ideal. But a reactionary president who had the capacity to recognize his own political interest — and a team of advisers monomaniacally focused on helping him pursue that interest — would probably be even more dangerous.