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Why Trump keeps doing unpopular things to please his base

The best case for what may seem like a puzzling political strategy.

Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Donald Trump has responded to his dismal approval ratings by throwing more and more red meat to his base.

With his controversial comments on the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, his pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and now potentially his sunsetting of a popular program that gave young unauthorized immigrants work permits, the president seems increasingly focused on pleasing the 37 percent or so of the public that approves of him, rather than reaching out to any of the 57 percent who disapprove.

It’s an odd way of responding to his unpopularity. The conventional political advice for what he should do to improve such poor numbers would be to try to change his image and win over voters who’ve turned against him.

Furthermore, Trump’s base already loves him — the vast majority of Republican voters continue to say they approve of the job he’s doing. If he already has his base, why, then, does he need to keep doing new things that please them but repel the majority of the public?

Of course, as with anything involving Trump, it’s a mistake to assume there’s a strategic master plan here. Instinct, emotion, and his own personal preferences all likely play a role in his choices.

But it is possible to come up with a strategic justification — or at least some potential strategic benefits — to Trump’s recent behavior. Here’s the best case for what may seem like a puzzling political strategy.

1) He may think reaching out to Democrats is futile at this point: Back in November 2016, it may have been possible for Trump to change his image and govern as a bipartisan consensus-builder. But after months of controversy, it would make sense if he thinks that opportunity no longer exists.

“My reaction is that he has closed off all the other avenues for political success or consensus-building,” says Patrick Ruffini, a Republican political consultant. “In an era of increasingly polarized politics, if he is so loathed by Democrats — I think the base is all he has.”

2) It’s about branding: While Trump doesn’t often seem to have a sophisticated understanding of political strategy or vote counting, one broader concept he’s long been obsessed with is branding. It’s a concept he brought from the worlds of business and celebrity to politics — think the towers with his name on it in big letters, his portrayal of a master businessman on reality TV, and his “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Over the past few years, Trump has deliberately constructed a political brand for himself that he wants to protect. So with moves like the sheriff Joe Arpaio pardon, he could be partly trying to signal to his core supporters that the swamp hasn’t changed him, and that he’s still willing to defy political elites with controversial moves.

On immigration in particular — the issue that resonated from his first campaign speech on — Trump seems particularly sensitive to the danger that any softening could pose to his brand. “His instincts are to wade in on these culture war issues, especially immigration,” Ruffini says. “I think he understands that’s the bedrock issue that got him an audience in the first place.”

3) He’s doing what he feels worked during the campaign: We’ve already seen the political world get egg on their collective faces by second-guessing Trump’s instincts many times. And in 2016, Trump’s strategy of resentment-stoking against minority groups, angrily tweeting, and overall negativity was enough to let him eke out a close victory.

Now, there were of course other factors that helped Trump win, like Hillary Clinton’s scandals and his status as the “change” candidate. But from Trump’s perspective, ignoring the whining of media and political elites and focusing on his core supporters worked for him before, so it makes sense that he’s trying it again.

4) He thinks racializing politics works to his benefit: A somewhat darker framing of some of the above points is that Trump may feel that the more politics is framed as a conflict between white Americans and various “others,” the more he’ll benefit politically. He’s long seemed to have an instinctual feel for this dynamic, perhaps stemming from the politics of New York City in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Just before his firing from the White House, Steve Bannon made a case to this effect in an interview with the American Prospect. “The Democrats — the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats,” he said.

5) It’s a strategy for surviving his scandals: Finally, the remaining potential motive here is self-preservation as the Russia investigation looms. That is: So long as Trump keeps his core supporters on his side, it will be very difficult for Congress to find the votes to impeach him or oust him from office. Many House Republicans in conservative districts will fear taking any action against a president who is so popular among their constituents.

This dynamic was at play during the Watergate investigations into Richard Nixon. “The President has lately been at some pains not to give further displeasure to conservatives,” Elizabeth Drew wrote in an early 1974 entry in her book Washington Journal. She explained: “In a vote in the House to impeach or in the Senate to convict, it is the conservatives who could save him or do him in.”

So Trump’s constant attention to his base at the expense of building broader support may seem puzzling as a strategy for political success. But as a strategy for survival, it doesn’t seem half-bad.

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