Trump Settles on His Reelection Message

“I’ll protect you” is the new “I alone can fix it.”

Carolyn Kaster / AP

In his marathon speech to a gathering of conservative activists last weekend, Donald Trump unloaded more than 16,000 words, according to the official White House transcript.

But amid all the meandering and asides, the belittling taunts (“Little Shifty Schiff” for Democratic Representative Adam Schiff) and geysers of grievance, Trump may have synthesized the essence of his reelection strategy in just three words toward the back end of his two-hour harangue: “I’ll protect you.”

With that concise phrase, Trump revealed volumes about his view of the electorate and the coalition that he hopes will carry him to a second term. The comment underscored his determination to convince his followers of a two-stage proposition: First, that they are “under siege,” as he put it, by an array of forces that he presented as either hostile to their interests or contemptuous of their values, and second, that only he can shield them from those threats.

That dark and martial message shows that Trump continues to prioritize energizing his core supporters—blue-collar, older, and nonurban whites uneasy about demographic, cultural, and economic change—even at the price of further alienating voters dismayed or disgusted by his behavior as president. It also shows that, even as an incumbent, Trump is drawn far more toward running on fear than on hope. At points in his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Trump dutifully followed the usual path of presidents seeking reelection and touted the economic progress since his inauguration—the message that most Republican strategists believe represents his best opportunity to recapture white-collar suburbanites in particular. But Trump showed far more passion in warning against all the dangers he described as massing against his supporters. The speech demonstrated yet again that he’s more comfortable positioning himself as the lone sentry manning the watch at “midnight in America” than as the optimist who has delivered “morning in America,” as Ronald Reagan memorably put it.

This positioning may help explain the reports that Trump has not lobbied too hard to prevent the Republican-controlled Senate from joining the Democratic House in rejecting his emergency declaration to transfer federal funds to his proposed border wall. It’s difficult to imagine a way for him to more dramatically portray himself as the solitary figure standing up for his voters than vetoing a resolution, passed by both chambers, opposing his declaration—over the border wall, no less. “It actually suits him better to have a presidential veto against even his own party, because it supports this line, ‘You can’t count on the Democrats, you can’t count on even the Republicans, but you can count on me,’” said Robert P. Jones, the CEO of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which studies public attitudes primarily on social and cultural issues.

Trump tried to send that message with both the substance and the style of his CPAC speech. He offered a rare example of a president using profanity during public remarks when he insisted that congressional Democrats are using “bullshit” charges against him. For Trump, breaking such rules of presidential decorum offers another opportunity to tell his supporters that he will barrel through any norm, and shatter any convention, to protect them. “When he does that type of thing,” said the longtime Republican strategist John Brabender, “it enhances the type of supporter he is truly talking to.”

As a preview of 2020, Trump’s CPAC speech once again showed how closely he is likely to echo the central arguments of conservative populists, from Joseph McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan. Like those predecessors, he portrayed his preponderantly white followers as caught between disdainful elites and dangerous minorities. Trump lambasted “the failed ruling class” that he claimed has betrayed working Americans with free-trade deals. He described college campuses as biased against conservatives, and he insisted that “Hollywood discriminates against our people.” And as he has done since his first day as a national candidate, Trump warned darkly of immigrants coming to steal Americans’ jobs or menace them with crime. Amid all these domestic threats coiled a serpentine network of international dangers, from trading competitors such as China targeting U.S. industries to Central American nations encouraging migrant caravans so they could “give us some very bad people. People with big, long crime records.”

The new twist in Trump’s CPAC speech was how directly he tried to connect the Democratic Party with the shadowy forces that he tells his supporters are threatening them. At one point, he declared that there are “people in Congress right now … that hate our country.” Later, he insisted, “Democratic lawmakers are now embracing socialism.” Both charges send the underlying message: Trump’s opponents are not only misguided, but also fundamentally un-American.

As he summoned all these dangers, Trump simultaneously portrayed himself as the one force that could block them. As Jones described it, Trump offered himself to his supporters as “a kind of wall,” a resolute barrier against the forces of social and economic change. Perhaps the single most telling moment of the speech came when he offered his pledge to “protect” his supporters: Trump insisted that gun owners are “under siege” from liberals determined to undermine the Second Amendment, before quickly adding, “but I’ll protect you.” That rhetoric echoed his declaration of “I alone can fix it” during his acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican convention. At CPAC, a few moments later, Trump added an exclamation point: “We will defend the American way of life.”

Trump didn’t define “the American way of life” in his speech, but he’s left little doubt that he identifies it with the attributes of his own followers: overwhelmingly white and Christian and mostly living outside major cities. (Trump generated a big round of applause at CPAC with a passing attack on “sanctuary cities.”) “It is really clear in a lot of Trump’s most visceral rhetoric [that] it’s not the whole country he is speaking to,” Jones said. “He is speaking to his base, and he has no intention of speaking to the entire country.

“That is another [presidential] norm that he’s broken: really not ever getting to an inclusive ‘we,’” Jones added. “His ‘we’s’ are always ‘what my base supports.’”

The fervor that Trump stirs among his supporters with such exclusionary rhetoric is palpable at each of his rallies—and was visible again at CPAC last weekend. But the circle he draws around “the American way of life” has never been inclusive enough to attract a majority of the country. Both Election Day exit polls and postelection analysis of state voter files indicate that the groups that feel most excluded from his definition—young people, minorities, college-educated white women—not only gave Democrats larger-than-usual margins last November, but also turned out in unusually high numbers. The veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told me the evidence from 2018 suggests that in 2020, at least 10 million more people might vote than in the 2016 presidential election—most of them from constituencies hostile to Trump.

Trump, and the GOP leadership more broadly, continue to behave as if those newly activated Americans are not also hearing everything Trump does to stoke his core supporters. But last weekend’s speech encapsulated almost everything that people critical of or even ambivalent about Trump dislike about him. Each time Trump breaks a boundary, he hardens the discontent, in particular among many well-educated middle-class voters who are doing fine economically but who view him as unfit for the Oval Office in morals and temperament. “There is a group of voters who voted for Trump holding their nose, who hoped he would be a different person and would be like other presidents—a figure of decorum and dignity and respect,” Garin said. “And he was anything but [that] … at that speech.” In PRRI polling last fall, 88 percent of African Americans, 75 percent of Hispanics, and 70 percent of white voters with a four-year college degree or more agreed that he has damaged the dignity of the presidency.

Likewise, as he nears his first veto, Trump is deepening his association with an end (the border wall) and a means (the emergency declaration) that has never attracted majority support in polls and faces overwhelming opposition from all the groups that powered the Democrats’ sweeping House gains last November: young people, minorities, and college-educated whites, especially women. The impending rebuke of the emergency declaration from both chambers of Congress, each controlled by a different party, seems guaranteed to solidify that opposition.

Trump’s disjointed, angry, boastful, vulgar, and divisive speech at CPAC was the clearest indication yet that he remains almost entirely uninterested in reaching out to the groups resisting him. (His decision to respond to the GOP’s midterm losses by instigating a prolonged confrontation over the border wall, which those same groups overwhelmingly oppose, underscores that conclusion.) Even if his growing roster of campaign consultants and advisers occasionally nudges him toward more conciliatory notes—or even more coherently organized speeches—Trump last weekend showed clearly that his own instinct is always to reprise the strategy that elected him in 2016: Maximize turnout among his core groups of non-college-educated, evangelical, and rural whites, even if that further inflames the groups most alienated from him.

In that way, Trump’s unstinting promises to “protect” his supporters against a changing America may expose him to greater risk from an electorate that will likely look slightly younger and more diverse in 2020 than it did four years ago. “It is a trade-off without a doubt,” Brabender said. “But it is a calculated risk by a president who feels that the trade-off is worth it. In fairness, it was the same trade-off four years ago, and it paid off. The question is whether you can do the same thing this time, when the electorate is going to change a little bit.” After last weekend, there’s less doubt that Trump is determined to find out.