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OPINION

Inside the mystery of Trump’s stubbornly loyal base

By ANDREW MALCOLM | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: November 7, 2018

One of the most puzzling, enduring and intriguing questions about the Trump presidential phenomenon is how he maintains such a stubbornly loyal political base despite what a majority of Americans regard as overwhelming evidence of his inconsistencies and incompetence.

This is the base that in just the right numbers in just the right states looked past his outrageous comments and indiscretions two years ago and produced a historic upset that stunned even Hillary Clinton into election-night silence.

This is the base that, with some dips, has kept his job approval right around the mid-40s, while a steady majority disapproves.

And this is the base that President Donald Trump has pursued with such energy and determination this campaign, not trying to convince anyone of anything new but instead fueling their self-interest, fears and allegiance to motivate maximum election turnout for candidates of his adopted GOP.

The self-described nonpolitician wasted no motion or words reaching out to the unconvinced. Elections are about divisions, not unity. Regardless of the midterm results, Trump’s strategy provides a revealing template for his approach these next 104 weeks until the vote on his re-election.

If Democrats or rebel Republicans really hope to defeat this man, they’d best spend less time denouncing and more studying his uncanny connections with supporters that are so far impervious to challenge while he continues delivering “promises kept.”

A tiny and revealing example of this linkage: Trump emailed supporters about the importance of Arizona’s Senate race. “A vote for Martha McSally for Senate,” he said, “will be the 2nd greatest vote you’ve ever cast … the first greatest was for me!”

Now on one level, that’s conceited Trump so full of himself, as usual. But on another, for supporters, he’s equating a McSally vote with the best vote they believe they ever cast, making it a must-do. Both views can be correct.

It’s unusual for a sitting president whose name is on no ballot to invest so much time, effort and prestige fighting the tides of midterm political history that foretell inevitable congressional losses for his party.

It’s also very Trumpian. Remember how ridiculous and hopeless his presidential quest seemed when Trump launched it from the lobby’s down escalator in Trump Tower? I do. I wrote how ridiculous and hopeless it was.

Watching him closely these past three-plus years, I’ve come to some conclusions. He’s the most outrageously confident public person since Muhammad Ali accurately predicted the exact round he’d knock out his next opponents back in the ’60s.

Many see this as obnoxiously cocky, even when it comes true. Especially when it comes true and denies a Democrat her rightful Oval Office inheritance.

Trump’s base knows all about being denied. For years — decades, really — its members invested their pleas, hopes, dreams, donations and votes in the establishments of both D.C. parties. To no avail.

Now, along comes a most unlikely and imperfect herald, a wealthy New York loudmouth who actually listens to those folks in flyover country, who voices their frustrations and fears about many things, especially jobs and illegal immigration.

Washington know-it-alls talk now of Trump fomenting divisions. News Flash: Barack Obama derisively described these people back in 2008. Unaware he was being recorded, the candidate told wealthy San Francisco donors how change threatens these unsophisticated heartland folks, so they cling bitterly to guns and religion.

Had Obama’s party of coastal elites paid attention instead of patronizing their earnest, frightened countrymen, there would be no President Donald Trump today.

No one can know what resides in anyone’s heart. But Trump addresses such fears as evaporating manufacturing jobs, stagnant wages, unfair trade deals, border security and illegal immigrants jumping the line.

He’s not talking at his base. He’s voicing, simply and starkly, what each of them believes. Watch crowd members nod. Importantly, he’s offering hope — through him.

Trump may not attend church each Sunday, but he defends their religious liberties threatened by political correctness. He may have had his own pro football team, but Trump goes after NFL owners and players for kneeling and disrespecting the flag.

At a slew of his rallies this fall, Trump, unlike standard pols, got up with no prompter and riffed for 60 to 70 minutes to a crowd that started lining up a day earlier. Some days, the 72-year-old president did three such mass events in different cities. Ostensibly, they are for state candidates. But they’re clearly the undercard.

Trump mocks opponents, warns that Democrats will raise taxes and speaks immodestly about his administration’s success in creating millions of jobs, boosting a booming economy, cutting regulations.

He also, of course, goes after “fake news,” claiming it’s the only way he can combat a monolithic media chronically unfair to him. Coincidentally, after Friday’s West Virginia rally, a pool reporter estimated Trump’s crowd at a mere 1,000, a number later corrected by Secret Service metal detectors to more than 4,000.

A Washington newspaper has taken to collecting Trump’s alleged exaggerations, inaccuracies and lies, now in the thousands by its count. That’s a kind of daily fact-checking zeal that never occurred to them during Obama’s reign of adoration when, among many things, the Democrat blamed YouTube for the Benghazi deaths and promised Americans 37 times they could keep their doctor and health insurance.

Trump was asked about lying last week by TV reporters unlikely to ever admit exaggerating a story. The president answered bluntly, “When I can, I tell the truth.”

That’s the kind of candid statement that proves to critics he’s unworthy of the office. And that’s the kind of candid statement that proves to his loyal base that Trump is a human talking to them straight.

Andrew Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s.

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