It would seem odd for someone who won the presidency in part because of swing voters in a couple of states to eschew trying to appeal to swing voters. But that’s what President Donald Trump sounded like he wants to. In an interview with Time Magazine this week, Trump indicated he’s more focused solely on his base:
“Trump, who lost the popular vote in 2016 and is the only President in the history of Gallup polling never to crack 50 percent approval, says he’s ready to defy that legacy. ‘I think my base is so strong, I’m not sure that I have to do that,’ he tells TIME, after being asked whether he should reach out to swing voters. The mantra of Trump 2020 is ‘turnout, turnout, turnout,’ as campaign manager Brad Parscale puts it. ‘People all think you have to change people’s minds. You have to get people to show up that believe in you.’ ”
If it is true that Trump won states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania because swing voters went his way in part due to his aggressive pursuit of them in the final weeks of the election, choosing against that outreach method this go around is to reject one of the effective approaches that got Trump to the White House.
Still, from the vantage point of this identity politics reporter, the desire to only tune in to your ardent supporters strikes at one of the great ironies of Trumpism and conservatism’s alignment: An appeal strictly to Trump’s base is an appeal to the very identity politics that many Republicans rail against. On any given day, Trump supporters can be found doing just that.
But a key point to the right’s position on identity politics is a misrepresentation of what identity politics is — including a denial of its own affinity for the concept.
At its best, identity politics is the understanding that various identities can shape perspectives on politics and policy issues. Data and research has shown for decades that an individual’s race, religion, gender and socioeconomic status may greatly influence how they vote and which ideas they support. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just true. Some people think any discussion about diversity and how it should shapes politics is inherently divisive and minimizes what should be Americans’ overarching identity: their national identity.
This is in part what Trump is referencing when he unapologetically embraces (and attempts to redefine) nationalism — a term that in political and historical context is rooted in othering individuals who do not align with a country’s traditional values.
But this perspective leaves Trump vulnerable to one of the most prevalent accusations of the polarizing leader: that the only groups of Americans whose opinions matter are those who are already in his tribe. And it can not be ignored that Trump’s tribe largely looks like . . . Trump. Republicans are more likely to be whiter, older, wealthier and more likely to be male and Christian than the American public. This is embracing identity politics.
It’s notable that Trump made that comment in a mainstream news outlet like Time, whose interview is out the same week Trump sits down for a rare interview with a non-Fox News television outlet. That also begs the question of if he’s shouting out to his base, as in fact he nudges into arenas that have broader appeal.
Focusing on these Americans is an interesting approach for a president who during the last election, saw many among his base prove less faithful than he’d hope. There was a blue wave in national and state elections because many Americans outside of Trump’s base showed up to the polls with a desire to back a vision of America opposite of that which Trump is advocating. It is likely that that could happen again in 2020. It is understandable that the president’s confidence in the faithfulness of his supporters is high due to their continued expression of adoration despite the number of controversies plaguing his campaign. But something the president needs to remember is that the majority of Americans, voters included, are not on the Trump train. And that if 2020 is a repeat of 2018, that could bode poorly for the Trump campaign.
Eugene Scott writes about identity politics for The Fix. He was previously a breaking news reporter at CNN Politics.