President Donald Trump may now be talking more about steel than cement, but his proposed border wall remains the Rosetta Stone for understanding both his conception of the presidency and his political strategy.
Nothing better illustrates Trump’s political calculus than his determination to build the wall, a goal that most Americans consistently oppose in polls, even at the cost of shutting down the federal government, a tactic that surveys show most Americans also consistently reject.
Politically, the showdown over the shutdown demonstrates how much more Trump prioritizes energizing and mobilizing his passionate base, often with messages that appeal to anxiety about demographic and cultural change, over broadening his support toward anything that approaches a majority of the country. It sends the same message about his priorities in executing his office. Trump makes no pretense of governing as president of the entire nation. Instead, he governs as the champion of his slice of America against all the forces in the country his supporters dislike or distrust—an instinct he displayed again this week with his latest threats to cut off disaster-relief funding for California.
For a president to consistently steer his governing agenda and political messaging toward a demonstrable minority of the country is, to put it mildly, a novel strategy. But Trump may feel comfortable playing on the short side of the field because it’s worked for him before. In the 2016 election, a majority of voters said they had an unfavorable view of him personally and did not believe he had the experience or temperament to succeed as president, according to the Election Day exit poll conducted by Edison Research. And yet Trump, of course, won a slim Electoral College majority despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million. A critical question looming over 2020 is whether he could squeeze out another victory while facing opposition from a majority of the country.