When Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, conventional wisdom had it that he would move to the political center and do more to appeal to moderate swing voters, who would likely be repelled if Trump continued to campaign on the racism, xenophobia and fear-mongering of his primary campaign.
Instead, the opposite has happened.
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In the last few weeks, Trump has defended his decision to retweet an anti-Semitic meme, floated a few conspiracy theories about President Obama and gone off the deep end with a politics of fear at the Republican National Convention.
So what’s going on? Is Trump self-destructing or is there a method to the recklessness?
Trump’s success so far has been the result of his carefully constructed four identities: wall-builder, birther, economic nationalist and outsider anti-corruption crusader. And recently he has added one more, christening himself the “law-and-order candidate” by exploiting violent attacks like the Orlando massacre.
It is a widely held view on the left that this form of Trumpism will never have enough broad-based support within the traditional electorate to deliver Trump to the White House. But Trump’s carefully constructed identities are not meant to shore up the base and pick off enough moderates to get to 270 electoral votes; nor are they meant for a so-called “rustbelt strategy,” which is predicated on the idea that Trump’s appeal to blue-collar workers could win him states like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin in November. Rather, Trump is looking for new voters elsewhere.
The first place he’s looking is the far-right fringe. White nationalists, right-wing anti-globalists and anti-government groups are all excited about the prospect of a Trump presidency — and these aren’t people who usually get excited about US elections. Trump’s dog-whistle campaigning and extremist policies make clear that he cares about these constituencies and that he is making a strategic decision to court them in the hopes that they will vote in greater numbers than they did in 2012.
Since 2008, there has been an explosion of political activity on the far-right fringe. When President Obama was elected, there were 149 radical anti-government “patriot” groups in the United States, as identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). By 2012, there were 1,360. The Economist called this “the Obama Effect.” The SPLC says that the “factors fueling the antigovernment movement in recent years include changing demographics driven by immigration, the struggling economy, and the election of the first African American president.” Sound familiar? Whether or not these groups can impact the outcome of the election at this point is not as important as the fact that Trump’s actions prove that he believes they can.
Then you have the forgotten — the nonvoters. In a 2013 study, Ellen Shearer of Northwestern University grouped nonvoters into typologies based on their reason for not voting. The largest group — more than 25 percent — are characterized as “pessimists.” They generally dislike both parties, are economically insecure, think the country is heading in the wrong direction and distrust government. Demographically, they are more likely to be white, older, poorer and less educated.
So, to put that into perspective: There are tens of millions of Americans who sound like natural Trump supporters. The only thing is that they haven’t voted in a while.
Trump doesn’t see the political landscape the same way a poll-obsessed Washington establishmentarian does. What he sees are angry white men all over the place — in the Republican party, in the white nationalist movement, listening to conspiracy-oriented radio host Alex Jones and, crucially, among the nonvoters. His campaign appears to be based on a grand gamble that he can turn enough angry white men who haven’t voted in a while into voters in 2016. He is ignoring the rules of the game and trying to find new supporters just like the ones he already has.
In true demagogic fashion, Trump began bragging that his candidacy was bringing “millions” of new voters into the Republican Party soon after the primaries began. In May 2016, Politico analyzed this claim using data from several early primary states. What they found was that although record numbers of Republicans were participating in primaries, there was not a significant number of new voters — most of them had voted in previous elections. Combined with the fact that nonvoters as a whole are more likely to lean Democratic, this seemed to be enough to sideline any talk of Trump’s nonvoter strategy.
It shouldn’t have been. First of all, a political movement like the one Trump has created takes time to build. During the primaries, there was a persistent worry on the far-right fringe that Trump was just another “cuckservative” (the derogatory moniker white nationalists have for those they view as spineless Republicans not faithful to their cause). That they are now enthusiastically behind Trump indicates how Trump’s image and movement have evolved.
As far as the data from the early primaries, it would be foolish to assume that just because Trump didn’t attract many new voters then, he won’t in the general election. Like midterm elections, far fewer people participate in primaries. Trump’s movement is still evolving and if he’s going to make headway with the low-information, disengaged nonvoters, he will do so when the majority of the country actually starts paying attention to the 2016 election: after Labor Day.
Lastly, while it is true that nonvoters as a whole lean Democratic, this election cycle Trump and Clinton have together created a toxic political climate that could ensure that the majority of nonvoters stay away from the polls, even as the far-right fringe inspired by Trump turns out in record numbers.
The curious thing about political revolutions is that they are rarely expected. Trump is trying to engineer one, and the fact that he believes his strategy could work should be enough to take it seriously. After all, Trump has defied all expectations so far. If he does so again, we shouldn’t be surprised.