Have you heard these questions? Why Donald Trump doesn’t pivot and try to appeal to a larger number of supporters? Why doesn’t he consider the more moderate voters and behave in a way that could potentially grow his number of supporters?
Anchors like Stephanie Ruhle on MSNBC are debating these questions in regard to the current funding compromise. Trump should support the current funding compromise which includes funding for the building of a limited number of miles of fence. Without declaring an emergency Trump can still find some additional money for his wall, and he has been claiming the wall is already being built. Why declare a national emergency that most of his Republican congressmen don’t want, and that will surely be stopped in courts? Why does Trump continue to take the most extreme, politically unfeasible positions? As possible explanations, pundits cite Trump’s narcissism, his obsession with news coverage, and his fear of criticism from the likes of Ann Coulter, but they miss his real, strongest motivator.
Trump has lived his entire life like a bad American Greed episode (if you’ve never seen it you should). He is always just a few steps away from disaster: bankruptcy, debt collectors, money laundering charges, the wrath of Russian mafia, and now serious criminal charges. Like a true career criminal, Trump has energy and clarity only when he is desperately running from impending doom. He has negotiated his way out of serious money laundering charges in the past. He can strong arm financial institutions, and pay pennies on the dollar of what he owes to bankers and contractors. He has found bigger, meaner, nastier criminals to partner with to get himself out of bankruptcy, while he buried himself deeper into the bowels of Russian mafia. There is no evidence to support the idea that Trump has devoted time or energy to normal political concerns. Instead, he has devoted nearly all his energy to getting out of the personal, financial and criminal mess he faces.
His actions suggest he is concentrating on two possible ways out of the mess. The first is to go all in on corruption and lies and hope he can ensnare enough powerful people with him, to get political cover and get away with everything. You can see his attempts at this, courting people like Jeff Sessions, Preet Bahrara, and Jim Comey, cornering them into inappropriate conversations. Seeking assurances of loyalty from them while promising to retain them in his administration, only to fire them all when it became clear they would not provide him cover. Then, he replaced them with people he expected to do his bidding, and provide him cover. While Trump continues to make increasingly desperate attempts at this approach, ultimately it is not working and he knows it.
The second way out for Trump is less desirable for him, but is more realistic. Trump knows there will come a time (soon) when he will be exposed and he will be facing not only impeachment, but criminal charges for him and his children. At that time, any support from moderates he could have gained will disappear. Reasonable moderates will not stay with him in the face of legitimate evidence of criminal conduct. However, he will still have the most rabid of his base, who are prone to believe that he was set up by the FBI.
The spill-into-the-street support of his gun-carrying base will some day be his last negotiating chip. He will be able to offer to prosecutors and politicians, that he will put down his phone and stop tweeting, and resign in exchange for leniency for him and his kids. The more his base is all-in and fired up in their support of him, the more powerful a negotiating chip he has.
Donald Trump can’t afford to have his most avid supporters back off even a little in the intensity of their support of him. Trump is likely to demonstrate the power he holds over his base by firing off tweets and calling for demonstrations. Prosecutors and politicians will have to consider what is best for the nation, and having the most avid members of his base marching in the streets and believing the deep state set Donald Trump up, is not a good situation for the nation. This is why Trump consistently chooses to rile up the most fervent of his base instead of courting moderate voters.
Cheryl Kelley lives in the DC area with her husband and young son. She is active in government and politics.