Why Trump ditched the economy and went back to the border to start a fight: Keith Boag

President Donald Trump knows a healthy economy isn't a strong enough motivator to get Republicans to the polls in the midterms. That's why he's gone back to the most divisive — and successful — tactics from his 2016 presidential campaign.

The economy is strong, but the president's closing message before the midterms is all about anxiety

President Donald Trump was scheduled to hold multiple campaign events before Tuesday's U.S. midterms, including two on Saturday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The tweet at the top of U.S. President Donald Trump's Twitter page yesterday was the nub of his closing argument for the midterm elections: A vote for Democrats is a vote for cop-killing foreign invaders.

The actual tweet — "It is outrageous what Democrats are doing to our Country. Vote Republican now! Vote.GOP"— appears above a campaign ad.

The ad features Luis Bracamontes, a twice-deported Mexican immigrant who murdered two police officers in California. Bracamontes's self-satisfied sneer is made more ominous by a montage of non-white people struggling to force their way through gates and barricades at what looks like a border somewhere — the exact location isn't clear.

As usual, there is nothing remotely subtle about the tweet, and as soon as Trump fired it into the Twittersphere it set off a predictable argument.

Some called it the most racist political ad since the infamous 1988 spot about rapist Willie Horton that played on whites' fears of violent crime and African-American stereotypes. Others said it was a fact-based ad drawing attention to a real and dangerous threat.

Thus the ad instantly served its purpose: Americans were fighting among themselves. The fight was the point.

'Racialized economics'

Racial division was vital to Trump's 2016 election victory and he has always known better than most the political value of baiting people to pick a side on race.

So no one should be surprised that Trump has reached for the same divisive tactic now that Republicans see their control of Congress threatened in next week's elections.

Framing Trump's 2016 win around "identity" has been controversial since the election. The suggestion that it was Trump's appeal to racial insecurity that propelled him to the White House is wounding to his supporters and offensive to those who prefer the more generous explanation that Trump connected with the economic insecurity of  "flyover" America's forgotten men and women.

Trump supporters celebrate his election victory back in 2016. The president seems convinced he can get his base out to the polls in the midterms on Nov. 6 by focusing on immigration and border security. (Ronda Churchill/Associated Press)

But a new book by a trio of political scientists makes a compelling case that not only was racial and ethnic identity the central explanation for Trump's success in 2016, the economy itself had also come to divide Americans along partisan lines and with a racial tinge.

In other words, under President Barack Obama, Republicans had much less favourable opinions about the economy than Democrats had and they came to view it through a racial and ethnic lens.

The economy was building momentum in the latter part of Barack Obama's presidency, but many Trump supporters didn't see it that way. (John Gress/Reuters)

The book, Identity Crisis, written by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck, has a much more detailed argument supported by heaps of post-election data.

But at its heart is a discovery that "the important sentiment underlying Trump's support was not 'I might lose my job' but, in essence, 'People in my group are losing jobs to that other group.' Instead of a pure economic anxiety, what mattered was racialized economics."

So rather than argue it was either racial anxiety or economic anxiety, they write that "racial anxiety was, arguably, driving economic anxiety."

Good economy, bad campaign

That helps to make sense of Trump's choices for his current campaign strategy.

The president has often bragged that he has improved the economy, claiming his cutting of taxes and regulations is responsible for lower unemployment, higher GDP growth and a roaring stock market. Democrats say that's debatable, but what's notable is that Trump hasn't been running on his economic record anyway.

The simple explanation is that running on a good economy rarely works.

As campaign strategist Dick Morris says, Trump seemed to make a strategic shift away from the economy as an issue during the summer — at about the time when Morris publicly advised him in a Breitbart column that a good economy wouldn't help him in the midterms.

Trump supporters cheer at a campaign rally in Estero, Fla., on Halloween. The president continues to draw large crowds, but recent polling suggests it's possible the Republicans could lose control of the House of Representatives in the midterms. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

"What happens is that when the economy's bad, that's all [people] can think about," he said. "When the economy's good, they think about everything else."

As much sense as that makes, though, there is another way in which good economic news is a particularly bad fit for Trump.

Extolling the strength of the economy doesn't provoke the racial anxiety that Sides, Tester and Vavreck say was essential to Trump's victory in 2016.

Back to the border

And so, since good economic news doesn't wedge well on racial anxiety for Trump, it's back to the border.

In the final couple of weeks of the campaign, this is what we've seen:

Trump has exaggerated the size and speed of a caravan of migrants heading from Central America to the United States.

He has claimed, without evidence, that the caravan is a cover for "unknown Middle Easterners" and criminals.

He has ordered U.S. troops to the border and said he might send as many as 15,000.

He has said those soldiers will treat migrants throwing rocks at them as if they were firing rifles, and will fire back.

He has said he might unilaterally end birthright citizenship as it's described in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

And then there's that ad.

Honduran migrant Jose Macy carries his four-year-old nephew Yair Perez as the thousands-strong caravan of Central Americans migrants hoping to reach the U.S. border moves onward from Juchitan, Oaxaca state, Mexico. The caravan has become the centrepiece of Trump's strategy for the midterm elections. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

All of these efforts to spin the migration into a crisis are meant to wind up the Republican base and send them hopping to the polls for the midterm vote.

But Democrats are favoured to win control of the House on Tuesday, so in addition to their racial tinge, Trump's last-minute tactics also seem to have a whiff of desperation.


Keith Boag

American Politics Contributor

Keith Boag writes about American politics and issues that shape the American experience. Keith was based for several years in Los Angeles and now, in retirement after a long career with CBC News, continues to live in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Keith reported from Ottawa, where he served as chief political correspondent for CBC News.


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