Election 2020

With Emergency Declaration, Trump Sticks by His Populist Persona

Trump will continue targeting immigrants, while the Democrats will target the rich. Success in 2020 will depend on the messaging.

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order to start the Mexico border wall project at the Department of Homeland Security facility in Washington, DC, on January 25, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump signs an executive order to start the Mexico border wall project at the Department of Homeland Security facility in Washington, DC, on January 25, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump on Thursday indicated he would refuse to accept the will of the U.S. Congress—including many of his fellow Republicans—and would declare a national emergency to get his promised wall built along the border with Mexico, even as he agreed to avert another government shutdown by signing a new spending bill.

It was only the latest sign that Trump intends to do whatever he can to appease his right-wing base and retain the populist mantle going into the 2020 presidential election, as an emerging Democratic field tries to wrest it away from him with new proposals like a wealth tax and a “Green New Deal.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—who like most of Democrats (and even some Republicans) believes that the so-called border crisis Trump decries is nonexistent—warned of a dangerous precedent in which any president, Republican or Democratic, could do “an end run around Congress” to pay for whatever they like, in violation of the legislative branch’s constitutional prerogative to appropriate funds. “A Democratic president can declare emergencies as well,” she said.

Thursday afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced: “President Trump will sign the government funding bill, and as he has stated before, he will also take other executive action—including a national emergency—to ensure we stop the national security and humanitarian crisis at the border.” Such a move is almost certain to bring legal challenges.

Some political experts said the larger issue is that Trump knows he has almost no chance in 2020 without the full support of the same riled-up base that responded to his populist appeal in great numbers in 2016, including disaffected Democrats and independents.

It is a struggle for the discontented middle-class vote that depends almost entirely on who succeeds in framing the discussion, political experts and pollsters say. But less than two months into 2019, it’s already apparent what the outlines of the 2020 debate will be. Trump continues to lay the blame on illegal immigration and bad trade deals costing “real” Americans their jobs. His prospective Democratic opponents are targeting income inequality, Wall Street, and billionaires—and flocking to dramatic solutions that are a response to what they see as Trump’s fake populism.

Already this week, Republican legislators, following Trump’s lead in his State of the Union address two weeks ago, were out in force declaring that the Democratic Party had turned socialist, especially as centrist candidates such as Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand embraced the broad goals of the Green New Deal. And Democrats were retorting that, no, they are really just better populists than Trump is and can solve the middle class’s actual problems.

“Which framing does the public buy is the real question as we go into 2020,” said Patrick Murray, the director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute. “This is why the Republicans are trying to frame this as pure socialism. Whereas if the Democrats are successful as framing it as pure populism, they might be able to expand their base.”

Still, some Democratic centrists warn that their party will be in a hopeless battle taking Trump head-on, in part because his brand of populism stokes fear while theirs aims at instilling hope.

“Our thought is always that fighting right-wing populism with left-wing populism is a losing proposition,” said Matthew Bennett of the Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “Left-wing populists punch in only one direction: up, to their credit. Right-wing populists punch down, to their discredit, using racism and nativism. It is much less politically salient to attack the rich than it is to attack everybody who could be standing in your way.”

Based on a Monmouth poll released earlier this month, Trump and the Republicans almost certainly have the harder selling job. Only 38 percent of registered voters say that Trump should be re-elected in 2020, and fully 57 percent say they want a new president. Moreover, in contrast to past elections when “both parties consistently prioritized shared values over electability when selecting a nominee,” Democrats have now flipped their priorities, Murray said. A majority of 56 percent will back the strongest candidate against Trump even if they disagree with that candidate on most issues, and only 33 percent prefer a nominee they are aligned with on the issues “even if that person would have a hard time beating Trump.”

But another danger for Democrats is that, in their eagerness to correct the mistakes of their centrist 2016 standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton, and win back the middle- and working-class voters who defected to Trump, they could move too far left and alienate much of their own base, which remains about 50 percent moderate to conservative, Murray and other pollsters and experts say.

The Green New Deal, proposed by the Democratic duo of left-wing firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, has been seriously questioned and even mocked by some for its 10-year pledge to meet “100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” It also promises “a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.” Though the pledges have not been fleshed out, Democrats found themselves on the defensive over charges that the plan was neither remotely feasible nor economically viable.

“I think it is very important for the Democrats to press forward with their Green New Deal,” Trump tweeted last weekend. “It would be great for the so-called ‘Carbon Footprint’ to permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military – even if no other country would do the same. Brilliant!”

Yet another possible wild card for the Democrats is the prospect of a third-party candidate, such as former Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, who seeks to win over the middle for himself if the party alienates its own center. “If the Democrats nominate someone who’s too insider, or someone who‘s too far on an extreme populism path that will only garner them true believers, there’s room for a third-party candidate,” Murray said.

But some pollsters say that for Democrats, the danger of trending too far leftward is less than it would have been in the past, because the party is unusually united in seeking Trump’s ouster. Stanley Greenberg, Hillary Clinton’s onetime pollster—and afterward a harsh critic of her campaign—says he has found that the extraordinary enthusiasm that led to Democrats’ House takeover in November 2018 is highly likely to play through to 2020, and even centrist Democratic voters are more open to government-led solutions than in the past, the socialist label be damned.

“They are unified by wanting to embrace activism in actually addressing problems, using government to be innovative,” Greenberg said. “The ideological divides [in the party] to me aren’t that great. If you asked about Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax, I’ll bet it’s 70 percent support in all Democrats. … I think there will historic turnout levels for 2020. ”

Elaine Kamarck, the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, said the risk of moving left might be a problem “in any other normal time. But this is not a normal time. If we were facing a normally behaving, center-right president, then I think these things would be issues. And right now, it’s just noise. None of this [proposals like the Green New Deal] is going to happen. Everybody knows that.”

Kamarck, Murray, and others also say Trump is botching a chance to widen his populist appeal beyond raising fears of an immigrant invasion with his emergency declaration. Murray thinks Trump missed a huge opportunity to move toward the center and win back middle-class doubters when he failed to emphasize infrastructure spending—one proposal that unites Democrats and Republicans and would likely gain passage—in his State of the Union.

Kamarck said that Trump’s corporate tax cut was also bungled as a populist tool, because he demanded no offsets from companies, thus opening the door to Democratic calls for a wealth tax. “If companies had invested in wages and innovation, we’d be having a whole different conversation. What did they do? They gave themselves one-time bonuses. They did stock buybacks. People really soured on that.”

She added that the newly emerging Democratic populist counter-message to Trump will not be accompanied by the disastrous mistakes the Hillary Clinton campaign made in avoiding key working-class regions. “In 2020 Democrats will not make the mistake of putting no organizers in Wayne County, around Detroit, Michigan. Wayne County she lost by 70,000 votes. The whole state she lost by 10,000 votes. No Democrat is going to do that again.”

Another key question is whether Trump, realizing he probably can’t win in 2020 in a two-person race with just his conservative base—he continues to hover around a mere 42 percent approval and more than 50 percent disapproval rating—is now slowly tacking toward the center. Earlier this month, amid much fiery rhetoric about illegal immigration, he sprinkled his State of the Union speech with some conciliatory noises—especially in his outreach to Jews, African-Americans, and women, and in opposing the high cost of prescription drugs.

But in the end he appears to be unwilling to risk angering his base. By any objective measure, the president suffered another humiliating loss to the Democrats this week when he acknowledged that he didn’t want another shutdown and appeared willing to accept a compromise spending bill that would allot even less for his “wall” with Mexico than the Democratic Party offered him in December before talks broke down.

Trump, as is his wont, didn’t acknowledge that once again he was caving—getting $1.375 billion for vague physical barriers versus the $5.7 billion he once insisted on for a “beautiful wall”—but only pronounced himself “unhappy.”

Yet the president apparently decided he couldn’t risk even a slight loss of enthusiasm by his base in the battle for populist honors, analysts said—which accounts for the announcement that he would tap emergency funds to build a border wall.  

“It’s clear that Trump has a core base, and while he hasn’t lost support among it, he hasn’t expanded it either. If he’s pitted against a decent Democrat in 2020 and it’s a two-person race, it’s likely that the Democratic candidate will be able to pick up a lot of voters in the middle,” Murray said.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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