Trump, speaking at a rally in Montana, said Rep. Greg Gianforte, who pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter who asked him a question, was a good guy.
“Greg is smart and, by the way, never wrestle him,” the president said, motioning as though he was slamming someone to the ground. “Any guy that can do a body slam — he’s my guy.”
Cesar Sayoc, accused of sending more than a dozen pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and critics of president Trump, can be described in these two ways: he’s an avid supporter of Trump, and he’s got a screw loose.
Given how frequently Trump has publicly encouraged or praised political violence against his opponents or the press (see above, for a recent example) it is actually striking that we haven’t seen more bombs and other types of assaults, such as the killing, as I write this, of several worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue by a gunman ranting about killing Jews. Of course the vast majority of Trump’s supporters would never dream of sending mail bombs, or of body-slamming a reporter, but there are surely more people out there who would.
One of the most distinctive features of Trump’s political behavior is that even when it would make sense for him to seek to broaden his appeal, time and again he reverts to rhetoric that stokes his base (and encourages violence) while further antagonizing the majority of Americans to oppose him.
(Among his opponents, similarly, there are many who would agree that he is racist, misogynist, even fascist, that he poses a serious threat to American democracy, but there have been very few cases of actual political violence directed against Trump or his supporters.)
One of the most distinctive features of Trump’s political behavior is that even when it would make sense for him to seek to broaden his appeal, time and again he reverts to rhetoric that stokes his base (and encourages violence) while further antagonizing the majority of Americans to oppose him. Indeed, I argued nearly a year ago that “Trump has made himself a hostage to his base: any move he makes to appeal to a broader public will gain him little or nothing in broader support, while it risks undermining his base support.” That continues to be true.
Trump’s base, as measured by the RealClearPolitics polling average, is around 44 percent of the electorate: it has remained in the 40-45 percent range for most of his presidency, not exceeding 45 percent since very early in his term. He is not as unpopular as George W. Bush was by the end, but he has been consistently disapproved of by a majority of voters.
Even in the face of this new rash of mail bombs, Trump seems utterly unable to tone down his partisan rhetoric. The occasion clearly calls for a president who leads the whole country toward reconciliation. He just can’t do it. His only reflex is to divide us.
His campaign for the midterm elections depends entirely on rallying and riling up his base. He seems to think that the formula of 2016 will work again, forgetting that he lost the popular vote. Now, faced with Democrats and independents who consistently reject him and are much more fired up than they were two years ago, he plays a dangerous game.
We’ll soon know whether his gamble will pay off.