Trump, swing voters and the latest outrage

Published September 10, 2020

By Thomas Mills

For most of his presidency, Donald Trump has unleashed a new outrage or become embroiled in a new scandal every few weeks. And every time, the media and Democrats chase the story to its, usually, very murky end. The outrages never go away. Trump never apologizes and the president is never held accountable. For Democrats, it’s infuriating. For Trump, it’s everything.

Trump understands both his base and the narrow group of swing voters who determine elections. He knows, as he told us, he could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his base would still support him. More importantly, he knows those narrow swing voters aren’t paying enough attention to remember his latest outrage or care about his latest scandal. They just want to know, “What are you going to do for me?” Nothing more, nothing less.

Trump knows his base. They are predominantly white people whose personal lives have very little interaction with non-white people. The go to white churches, live in white neighborhoods, go to predominantly white schools, and are generally happy living that way. They don’t consider themselves racist or prejudiced, because they don’t have anything against Black people or Hispanic people or Asians. To hear them tell it, it’s not that they wish anybody ill or want anyone to have fewer rights; they just aren’t interested in getting to know people who are different. Voluntary segregation has worked just fine for them, thank you.

 And yet, they feel under attack. An increasingly diverse society is pointing out very uncomfortable realities and those truths are spilling into in their white enclaves. In the South, their ancestors are being demonized as slaveholders and their grandparents are being condemned for embracing Jim Crow. The symbols they were taught to revere are coming down. Their heroes are being turned into villains.  

And now, the left is going after the very institutions that protect their way of life. The police who keep suspicious characters out of their neighborhoods are being castigated for just doing their jobs, unpleasant as they sometimes may be. These reformers and radicals want to open the prisons and turn loose the criminals who threaten the very stability of our society. They want to end bail so thugs are wandering the street before the courts can lock them away. And while they are making our streets, cities and towns less safe, they want to strip away 2nd Amendment rights, leaving people without the means to protect themselves.

 The way those otherwise comfortable white people see it, the government is about to capitulate to a bunch of leftists resentful of their comfortable lives and force them to live in communities and towns that don’t look much like what they have now. Their culture and way of life is under attack and the only person willing to stand up for them is Donald Trump. He’s standing in the way of Democrats who would integrate neighborhoods with affordable housing schemes. He’s building the wall that reduces the constant flow of people who don’t look like Americans, don’t speak English and don’t worship in the same manner. In their view, he is quite literally the last line of defense and, yes, they will vote for him no matter what. And Donald Trump knows this.

As for those swing voters, they are largely disengaged. They don’t watch the news. They don’t read the newspaper. They don’t care about current events or politics at all, so not much gets through. As one person on Twitter pointed out last week, the largest divide in the perception on news is not “left vs. right but ‘follows politics” vs. ‘doesn’t follow politics.’” The people who don’t follow politics are acutely unaware of the latest scandals. They don’t know that Trump called military people “losers” and “suckers.” They don’t know that Trump called white supremacists “very fine people.” They don’t know that Louis DeJoy paid his employees to make political contributions. More importantly, they really don’t care. And Trump understands that, too.

Those swing voters really only care about a few things. They want to be safe. They want to have a job that pays the bills and offers a decent amount of vacation time. They want enough health insurance that they aren’t worried about getting sick or going to a doctor.  They want their kids to be well educated so they, too, can get a job when they are grown. And they want to get to the store unimpeded by violence or viruses. They aren’t going to be moved by calls for racial justice or reforming the police. They may think George Floyd’s death is a tragedy and the police acted improperly, but they probably aren’t thinking much about the larger consequences. For them, politics comes down to one simple question, “What can you do for me?”

Trump and Republicans are telling those disengaged voters, “We’ll keep you safe.” That’s one of those swing voters’ primary concern. Trump understands that they aren’t listening to much, so he’s not going to vary too much from that theme. He’ll say it over and over and over. He’s betting the farm on “Law and order.” If he says it long enough and loud enough, with a backdrop of disorder and property damage in cities, maybe that message will sink in. If enough of those people hear it, they’ll vote for Trump, not because they like him, but because he’s telling them what he will do for them, especially if Democrats are jumping from scandal to scandal to scandal.

The Atlantic article highlighted Trump’s well-known disdain for the military so Trump changed the channel, knowing that the left will shift its attention accordingly. Now, Twitter is lighting up with outrage over Attorney General Bill Barr defending Trump against a lawsuit alleging sexual assault. The Trumpers won’t care and the disengaged swing voters will never hear about it. The left, though, will obsess over it for a week or so until Trump does something else outrageous. As they jump from outrage to outrage, they may keep their base engaged in trying to stop the corruption, but they are not engaging those swing voters who don’t care.

Trump has settled on law and order as the message of his campaign heading down the stretch. The theme appeals to both his base, who sees coded language, and swing voters who might genuinely be concerned about their safety if the message gets through. Democrats, in contrast, seem to be talking about the latest scandal. It’s the Post Office one week. It’s military the next week. It’s Bill Barr the week after that. Maybe the outrage will fire up enough people to sweep Biden and the Democrats into office, but it seems a big gamble. They should instead settle on one outrage that affects a large cross section of voters and keep repeating it, hoping that it cuts through. The failure to help people with COVID-19 relief or the attempt to take away people’s health care seem to be two issues that both play to the base and appeal to the middle. Democrats should find a message with mass appeal that focuses on the failure of the Trump administration and Republicans and keep hammering it ad nauseam until election day. At least that’s what I would do.