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Rallying the base is not an accomplishment

In a polarized political environment, it’s hard to lose your core supporters.

trump rally

The endless media fascination with Donald Trump’s base is one of the most consistent and distinct aspects of his presidency. No matter how many people he offends or alienates with his actions and comments, we invariably learn that the day was, to some extent, a win for him because he rallied his base. Peter Baker had the latest version of this argument Sunday at the New York Times:

While his campaign against National Football League players who kneel on the sidelines during the national anthem to protest racial injustice drew outraged protests from the sports world and Washington cognoscenti, Mr. Trump was lionized as a champion of patriotism in the conservative online world. Core supporters, who may have been upset at his bipartisan deal with “Chuck and Nancy” and his endorsement of Senator Mitch McConnell’s candidate in Alabama, rallied behind him by booing players, selling tickets or turning off their televisions.

I cannot recall a similar fascination with previous presidents’ core supporters. Barack Obama had remarkably stable approval ratings for much of his presidency, but when they began to inch up in his final year, reports generally noted that and looked for explanations for his popularity. When George W. Bush’s once stratospheric approval ratings cratered in his second term, media coverage focused on causes of his unpopularity, including a recession and two wars. Rarely was there a search for a win by noting that at least a quarter of the country still supported him.

Interestingly, there were a number of stories in the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency noting how his core supporters (often rural whites who distrusted what they saw as a liberal media elite) were standing with him. That, of course, was not enough to save him.

But such coverage is even more peculiar in today’s polarized political environment. During an era when negative partisanship is so strong, it is actually very difficult to lose one’s base. Supporting their candidate is what a base does. Partisan voters have well-developed abilities to filter out and rationalize negative behavior by their chosen candidate and to view any criticism of him as illegitimate and suspiciously motivated. Trump’s core supporters have made it abundantly clear that there’s almost nothing he could do that would cost him their support.

Indeed, much of what make Trump so toxic to the majority of the country is what his base likes about him. Is he being belligerent with North Korea? Good, we needed a new approach. Is he undermining our foreign alliances? Fantastic, we need to look out for America first. Do his tweets seem bigoted? Fine, we’re tired of political correctness. Trump has already lost the people he’s going to lose with this sort of behavior.

What could potentially cost him with his remaining supporters is the sort of thing that has brought previous presidencies to their knees: a recession. George W. Bush had an adoring base, but many of them abandoned him when they and their neighbors started losing their jobs and the news showed one massive bank after another collapsing. A prolonged and bloody war could have a similar effect.

But short of that, there’s every reason to expect that the voters who are with Trump now will continue to stick with him. There’s nothing remarkable about that. It’s what a base does. The remarkable thing is that given a healthy economy, a relatively peaceful international situation, low crime, low gas prices, and a still-new presidency, Trump doesn’t have anyone else in his corner.