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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

June 18: Exploring Republican Over-Confidence About Trump’s Reelection

Sometimes you see a political phenomenon so often that you can forget to look into what it means. I chose one to write about at New York this week:

By any objective standard, the president’s prospects for reelection are looking down. Joe Biden is continuing to lead him in trial heats nationally (by 8.1 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics averages) and in most battleground states. The president’s job approval numbers are lower than they’ve been since last December. People are still very afraid of COVID-19, and despite one good monthly jobs report, the economy is still in the ditch, with unemployment higher than at any time since the 1930s.

There’s tons of time between now and November, the economy could somehow turn around and that second “wave” of the coronavirus could fail to appear, and Joe Biden could do or say something self-destructive. But the possibility of a Trump revival is not the same thing as its probability, much less certainty. Yet as Politico notes, there’s little doubt in MAGA-land that Trump will win in November, and maybe win big:

“Interviews with more than 50 state, district and county Republican Party chairs depict a version of the electoral landscape that is no worse for Trump than six months ago — and possibly even slightly better. According to this view, the coronavirus is on its way out and the economy is coming back. Polls are unreliable, Joe Biden is too frail to last, and the media still doesn’t get it….

“’The more bad things happen in the country, it just solidifies support for Trump,’ said Phillip Stephens, GOP chairman in Robeson County, N.C., one of several rural counties in that swing state that shifted from supporting Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. ‘We’re calling him “Teflon Trump.” Nothing’s going to stick, because if anything, it’s getting more exciting than it was in 2016.’

“This year, Stephens said, We’re thinking landslide.’”

Politico found that if you ask Republicans why Trump’s going to win, they generally offer explanations ranging from the hyper-optimistic (everything will be back to normal any day now and a happy back-at-work electorate will reward Trump for saving them), to the aggressively ignorant (all polls showing Biden ahead are fake, because they were dead wrong last time —well which they actually weren’t), to pure disinformation (Democrats are throwing away the election by calling for the abolition of police departments and confiscation of private property, beginning with guns).

So why are Trump-supporting Republicans so relentlessly upbeat, and dismissive of objective evidence that points in the direction of defeat? Here are five theories:

1. They’re drinking his own Kool-Aid

Trump supporters are by definition big fans of a man who never admits mistakes or weaknesses, expresses narcissistic, self-congratulatory hubris every other hour, and hates “losers” as much as Jesus Christ loved them. Perhaps they are simply following the leader, who appears to systematically block out any source of information that doesn’t tell him what he wants to hear.

2. They believe “enthusiasm” is the ball game

As is well known, Trump’s reelection strategy, and his behavior in office, have been heavily oriented towards “base mobilization,” to the extent of sometimes excluding any serious effort to identify or persuade swing voters, much less Democrats. To the extent that mobilization is facilitated by enthusiasm, getting the MAGA faithful to believe they are marching in a perpetual victory parade is presumably valuable. It’s possibly relevant that polls show a majority of Republicans are motivated by a desire to support Trump, while a majority of Democrats are more focused on beating Trump than on electing Biden. Trump voters want to know they are part of a historic reelection campaign that will take America another step closer to the paradise of the 1950s, not into some socialist nonwhite dystopia.

3. They want to “own the libs”

One bond Trump has with his supporters is in deeply enjoying the discomfort of their common enemies. They are aware that the vast majority of left-of-center Americans don’t simply dislike the president, but dislike him intensely. Many view the prospect of this strange “accidental president” serving another four years with genuine horror. So it’s great sport for Trump supporters to confront them with this possibility, raised to the level of certainty. It’s mass schadenfreude, with a dollop of Trump’s own signature cruelty.

4. They truly despise the “elite” sources of adverse information

If you are convinced that polls are all “fake” and most of the media — including Fox News on occasion — just systematically lie, all to benefit Trump’s enemies, then it’s a short leap to assume that the “truth” they are hiding is MAGA-rific or even glorious. Similarly, once one is convinced that “real Americans” are in the president’s corner, then anything (like a bad poll or mockery of a self-destructive Trump video clip) emanating from sources that either “don’t get it” or are actively hostile to this country and its interests simply cannot be credited as “real.” Believing that Trump might lose, therefore, can become an anti-patriotic act, or a sign of being duped by contemptuous wrong-doers.

5. They are preparing to contest any defeat

The most troubling possibility is that Trump supporters understand the president is laying the groundwork for contesting a defeat, and want to help him do so. Here’s how I recently described Trump’s efforts to undermine, in advance, the legitimacy of the November election in case he happens to lose it:

“Trump is now regularly claiming that voting by mail is inherently illegitimate, except for grudging exceptions for people who can’t make it to the polls. So, presumably, states that allow for no-excuse voting by mail in November are holding ‘substantially fraudulent’ elections. That’s 34 states who do so by law (including battleground states Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), 11 more that so far are waiving excuse requirements this pandemic year (including New Hampshire), and another that may be forced to do so by a lawsuit (Texas).

“So in a very real sense, unless Trump backs off his claims that voting by mail means a ‘rigged election,’ he’s letting us know that he and his supporters will be justified in challenging any adverse results in states that allow this terrible practice to take place.”

Keep in mind that Trump went to a lot of trouble to claim he was robbed of a popular-vote majority in 2016 (thanks to “millions of illegal votes” for Hillary Clinton for which he offered not a shred of evidence), even though it didn’t ultimately matter. One possible rationale was to convince his followers Democrats always cheat, meaning their victories should prospectively be discounted or challenged. If on Election Night 2020, Donald Trump claims victory on the basis of early returns, is there any doubt his fans and media allies will join him in crying out “fraud!” to the high heavens should late mail ballots drift in and reverse the results? I don’t think so. And either consciously or unconsciously, some of them may be anticipating that fraught scenario already. To a significant number of the faithful, Trump is not just a president, but an embodiment of America, and even God’s Annointed. He can’t fail. He can only be failed.

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