Donald Trump thinks he’s a rock star. Touring the country in support of Republican candidates, the president puffed out his chest and bragged about his ability to draw a crowd. “Do you know how many arenas I’ve beaten Elton John’s record?” he praised Greg Gianforte, who body-slammed a reporter from The Guardian in early 2017. “Never wrestle him, any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of guy, he’s my guy,” Trump said of the congressman. And, two years after winning the presidency, he is still ranting about Hillary Clinton, now claiming that it was her campaign, not his, that colluded with the Russians.
The consensus among many in the media is that Trump’s repetitiveness, particularly on the issue of immigration, is tactical. “This pure brute force from Trump could work,” NBC News’ “First Read” briefing argued, “because there is no equal response from Democrats.” This “brute force” campaign built on fear-mongering, race-baiting, and conspiracy theories worked in 2018—why not now? Mike Allen concurred, writing that “immigration and stoking fear about Mexican immigrants propelled Trump to the White House.” Trump is claiming that he can set the terms for the midterms, unveiling a new battle plan at recent rallies: “This will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law-and-order and common sense.”
But Kavanaugh may be more of a boon for Democrats than Republicans—which could explain why Trump has emphasized the “Democratic mob” more than the Supreme Court justice. Immigration and “law and order” were the pillars of Trump’s 2016 campaign. While Democrats have struggled to combat the GOP’s immigration claims—or to put forth their own comprehensive solution—they may not need to. Health care, not immigration, has been the dominant issue of the midterms so far. Trump is retreating to familiar territory because he doesn’t have anywhere else to go, and Republicans are following him out of desperation. With an unpopular president and an even more unpopular agenda, these fear-based appeals may be Republicans’ only card. “Voters are motivated by fear and they’re also motivated by anger,” Newt Gingrich told The Washington Post. He was referring to the migrant caravan, but may as well have been describing the GOP’s election strategy.
Trump’s race-based appeals have been “effective for him politically,” Maggie Haberman pointed out on Twitter. But what worked in 2016 may not work in 2018, and not simply because Trump isn’t on the ballot, potentially depressing his supporters’ turnout. There’s a reason his rally venues have shrunken. He’s droning on about the same old things because he has very little to show for two years of unified Republican control of the government. His only legislative accomplishment is a tax bill that is hugely unpopular. His rallies in 2018 are a mix of ego-boosting and retreat to familiar territory. He has, two years into his presidency, become the political equivalent of a band that has been touring off the success of its first record for too long. The superfans are still buying it, but everyone else seems to be tuning it out.