If Donald Trump has a singular political genius beyond his signature relentlessly aggressive shamelessness, it’s his instinctive awareness that the Republican base wanted a president who looked and talked not like a Republican politician, but like a Fox News or AM radio host. It’s actually remarkable that no one on the right figured this out before now: had Sean Hannity or Michael Savage sought the Republican nomination in 2012 or 2016, they almost certainly would have won.
The reason that right-wing media figures didn’t run for president is that they knew they would make terrible general election candidates. Trump, on the other hand, was able to make all the right signals of hate and bigotry to the Limbaugh base while convincing just enough Rust Belt Democrats and independents that he would do something about trade and predatory Wall Street traders, and wouldn’t really end abortion or cut their benefits.
Having gotten elected on a vaguely left-right populist platform, he then proceeded to keep all the racist and sexist red meat for the deplorables while delivering all the economic and environmental loot to his plutocratic friends and big Republican donors. Notably, while this betrayal damages Trump’s and the GOP’s standing with many of his voters, it suits the executives and celebrities in favorite propaganda mouthpieces just fine.
Trump now famously lives his entire presidency on TV. He devotes enormous stretches of his day to “executive time”, which essentially amounts to obsessing over hours and hours cable news. He is still preoccupied with ratings, and does rally after rally not just to feel adulated before adoring crowds, but to entire hours of primetime coverage devoted only to him. Trump understands the Fox News audience better than any because he’s not just a purveyor of the propaganda product: he’s a consumer, a devoted user and addict.
But that’s also a serious problem. Whatever bipartisan glow Trump may have acquired as a neophyte presidential candidate is long gone, his divisive rhetoric has infuriated moderates and independents, and there just aren’t enough Fox News acolytes to sustain an effective electoral coalition. But Trump doesn’t know that. He’s a true believer. As far as he knows, what’s good for Fox News is good for the country and good for the Republican Party.
Which leads us to Trump’s self-destructive impact on House Republicans. The president has rightly discerned that his fellow deplorables aren’t going to be motivated to vote by good economic numbers: after all, he knows as well as anyone that a strong traditional metrics don’t translate to broad confidence and job security in the real modern economy. So to encourage base Republican turnout Trump has turned to good old racism and sexism: accusing Kavanaugh’s accuser of lying about being assaulted, and ramping up fears of immigrant caravans among the unique terrified older white conservatives who make up his core constituency.
This is helping Trump in the deep red states that just so happen to make up most of the contested Senate map this year. But it is destroying Republican hopes in the House where ramping up attacks on women and minorities leaves voters cold in both rural Obama-Trump and upwardly mobile, well-educated suburban districts. And it is doing even more to energize a furious Democratic base eager to push back against bigotry and hate.
Of course, it’s still possible that Republicans could keep the House and outperform expectations just as they did in 2016. But it seems increasingly far fetched. Democrats are no longer hampered by an unpopular banner carrier, Trump has lost all veneer of bipartisan credibility, and downballot Republicans have even less to go on.
He and his team will do their best to take credit for strength in the Senate while pretending the House had nothing to do with them. He’ll claim that the Senate is more important because of its power over the judiciary. But Trump knows as well as anyone just how dangerous the prospect of House investigations are not only to his presidency but to his business and family finances. He knows he can’t just shrug off losing control of the lower chamber and his allies.
Trump could have saved some of them by playing it safe and touting the economy. But a president who can’t see past the teevee isn’t capable of political self-preservation, either.