Wake-up call for Trump: He's confronting the reality of a general electorate that looks nothing like GOP primary voters

Trump's jingoism is toxic to everyone outside the GOP bubble

Published August 18, 2016 1:38PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/Gerald Herbert)
Donald Trump (AP/Gerald Herbert)

Donald Trump coasted to victory in the primaries with a simple message: Build a wall and make America great again. This is a nakedly nativist message, but one that white nationalists and cultural discontents respond to. A salesman above all else, Trump understood his audience and went all in on his regressive, anti-immigrant thematics. He was rewarded with the most votes in the history of the Republican primaries.

Trump didn't redefine the GOP, he just recognized how it's changed in the last few years. The religious lunacy has been supplanted almost entirely by ethnonationalism. The base finally tired of the false promises of the culture war. For decades, Republicans whipped conservatives into a frenzy over abortion and same-sex marriage and other wedge issues, but they failed to change anything. They lost one legislative battle after another. The religious right, such as it is, has either given up on the GOP or abandoned the process altogether.

Trump read the political winds back in 2011, when he lunged into presidential politics by aligning himself with the birther movement. That Trump signaled his racism so clearly and was rewarded so overwhelmingly by GOP primary voters was a sign of where the party is now.

But here's the problem: The average Republican primary voter is not the average general election voter. Trump's jingoism is toxic to everyone outside the GOP bubble. Thus he's backed himself into a corner of sorts: If he shape-shifts into a non-racist candidate, he'll alienate the racists who propelled his campaign in the first place. Worse still, even if he made such a transition, he'd be admitting to general election voters that he was merely pretending to be racist all this time. That's not a winning argument.

Trump is under immense pressure to shift towards a general election orientation, but he's convinced there's no need. In a recent interview with WKBT-TV, here's what he said of the calls to pivot: “Well, possibly, I do, but, you know, I am who I am. It's me. I don't wanna change. Everybody talks about, 'Oh, well you're gonna pivot, you're gonna' – I don't wanna pivot. I mean, you have to be you. If you start pivoting, you're not being honest with people.”

Thing is, Trump isn't wrong here. On the one hand, he's too far down the nativist road to turn back. He's already defined himself as a candidate. His supporters like him precisely because he wears his xenophobia proudly. On the other hand, he cannot – and will not – get within a hundred miles of the White House if he can't broaden his appeal.

The numbers tell the story. A new USA TODAY/Rock the Vote poll shows Clinton leading Trump 56 percent to 20 percent among voters under 35. This portends doom for the Republican Party moving forward, but it's not necessarily devastating in this election (young people are notoriously unreliable on election day). It gets much worse, however. As it stands, Trump is trailing in every single swing state. The Realclearpolitics.com averages in states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania all point to a sustained post-convention bounce for Clinton. Given how unorganized and slapdash Trump's campaign is, gaining ground on Clinton in places like Florida (where she has a huge infrastructural advantage) is unlikely.

According to a New York Times report, Trump is perplexed by his tanking poll numbers. “In interviews with more than 20 Republicans who are close to Mr. Trump or in communications with his campaign Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman write, “they described their nominee as exhausted, frustrated and still bewildered by fine points of the political process and why his incendiary approach seems to be sputtering.”

I understand the frustration, but there's really no reason for bewilderment here. Trump's “incendiary approach” is “sputtering” because most of the country isn't overtly racist or xenophobic. And since Trump has offered nothing in the way of ideas or substance, only racists and xenophobes are moved by his rhetoric. And yet, despite every indication to the contrary, Trump insists he's made no mistakes and, in fact, needs to double down on his primary strategy.

We learned today that Trump is once again looking to shake up his campaign, not in order to change it but to surround himself with people who won't try to control his message. The Washington Post's James Hohmann reports that “Trump plans to re-double his focus on holding big rallies and doing lots of TV hits. He'll also more aggressively attack Hillary Clinton...and he'll re-embrace his role as an outsider.” This is another way of saying Trump is recommitting himself to the nativist appeals that won over Republican primary voters.

It matters little what Trump does at this point. There's no way out of the hole he's dug. He's confronting the reality of a general electorate that is far more diverse than a Republican primary electorate. Because he made no attempt to moderate his message months ago when it might have mattered, it makes no sense to do so now. He's not going to win over the middle this late in the game, so better to go out swinging with the people who carried him this far.

The end result is the same in either case.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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