Trump Plays to His Base, Often at the Expense of the Nation


Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced that the President would rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and that Congress would have six months to find an alternative to the policy. This sudden reversal of U.S immigration policy, which aimed to give citizenship to formally immigrant children, was a shock to many. It was particularly surprising considering the general approval of the program despite more conservative views on immigration broadly. Traditionally conservative constituencies such as business leaders, faith leaders, among others, have been increasingly vocal about their support of the program. DACA formally allowed the United States to incorporate people, those whom lived in the United State’s prior to the policy, to lawful working status and enroll them onto tax rolls. Yet despite the regularities of how this program is perceived in public opinion, we are once again faced with the fact that this is not your typical presidency — at least at face value.

The Trump Administration’s reversal on the program enacted under President Obama is not particularly uncharacteristic of the policy decisions it has made thus far. One of the first announcements made by President Trump was the U.S withdrawal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership; a campaign promise of his. Another, the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, was announced in early August. The President has seemingly tailored many of his policy responses to those who have voted for him. This is typically seen as ideal; and it is generally the case that any policy priorities of presidential candidates will be aimed more favorably towards their loyal constituents than their ideological opponents. However, it is significant to look at how Trump has adhered to his “loyal base” or the roughly 20–25% of the electorate that supports him regardless of any of his policy choices. This amount of “loyal” support is not historically uncharacteristic of the presidency either. In the midst of impeachment and on the eve of his resignation, Richard Nixon held on to roughly 24% support of his most adamant supporters. Yet unlike Nixon, Trump seems to be tailoring his policy choices in a way that is more blatant than the inherent nature of politicians to play to their base.

This forceful play by which Trump plays to his base may be part of his larger electoral strategy. While his whiter, older evangelical base may not be a winning constituency in and of themselves in the long term for the Republican Party, it ultimately benefits Trump in the short term. There are also particular negative payoffs, particularly in Republican primaries, to disassociate oneself with the base. This has held true with many conservatives long before Trump, particularly with those that took a more moderate stance on immigration. Yet Trump’s primary aim doesn’t seem to be to appeal to core Republican voters, but rather to appeal his own unique and loyal base. Unlike traditional Republicans, Trump has had mixed platforms on core conservative positions such as free trade and foreign policy. But he also took a more hardline approach on immigration, which was the primary concern of his core supporters more than other Republicans during the primaries.

Now six months into his presidency, Trump is focusing much of his key initiatives on how it plays to his primary base regardless of whether it’s detrimental to his public approval and overall ability to mix well with Republicans in Congress. This has been evident in various scenarios not only with the withdraw from the trade and climate deals mentioned earlier, but also with Trump’s willingness to take positions outside of normal presidential orthodoxy. Consider for example his pardoning of Joe Arpaio. The former Sheriff was convicted on contempt of court after ignoring a 2011 court order that required his department to exempt race as a factor when making law enforcement decisions. It is difficult to see how this move by Trump to pardon Arpaio is beneficial to the rule of law or to voters, particularly with more moderate Republicans or independent voters with more lenient views on immigration and race.

Trump has also taken this approach to military policy. He recently ordered the Pentagon to bar transgender recruits from joining the armed services despite lacking consistent data on such a move. This measure drew heavy criticism from many, including the U.S Navy Secretary amongst others. The measure was also made without consultation with either the Joint Chiefs or the civilian leadership of the Department of Defense. Whether this was a mere impulse or a calculated political decision, this departure from proper procedure in making a drastic policy change is unprecedented. This encapsulates Trump’s willingness to abandon the systematic way of implementing Executive measures at the whim of getting applause from his core supporters.

Most telling of the President’s approach was his reaction to the events at Charlottesville. One would think that the simplest of political tests would be that American leaders denounce neo-Nazis. The President’s original statement devolved into false equivocation as he compared those protesting the far-right rallies to the neo-Nazi’s themselves. Backpedaling on this comparison and later doubling down displays the nature of Trump’s greater strategy. It shows the willingness of Trump to diverge from the party lines on certain issues, and in many cases, going beyond it. There may be some areas where this is electorally beneficial to Trump. However there is an increasing amount of evidence showing that this approach is seriously hurting his relationship with Republicans — not to mention the rest of the country. Without the support of more establishment Republicans in Congress, the ability of the President to pass any serious piece of tax reform or infrastructure legislation is seriously jeopardized.

President Trump will eventually have to weigh the political calculus of continuing his current approach. While the President’s willingness to adhere to his most fervent supporters is obvious, it may ultimately come to hurt him in the end. As he becomes increasingly unpopular, with his party and generally, it becomes less likely any substantive policy will result from his presidency. This may frustrate Republicans, particularly those whose necks will be on the line during reelection season. It might also tempt them to dissent from Trump’s positions on certain issues and even go as so far as to impeach him. Lastly, Congressional Republicans will have to draw their line in the sand in regards to how they react to the White House’s current approach. Whether on moral or practical grounds, they alone will be the ones who adjudicate the President’s current decision making. Should they decide to completely abandon their loyalty to Trump, they would be sending a clear message that his approach, in its current form, is unacceptable — regardless of party. They should be keen in keeping the President in check, and foremost prioritizing the interests of the nation before the narrow interests of the Executive.

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