Understanding Trump and His Base

Following the collapse of negotiations on immigration in the Oval Office last week, Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina commented on President Trump’s dedication to his base in an interview on MSNBC. The interviewer and subsequent media representatives did not pick up on the significance of those remarks. This article will expand on Representative Clyburn’s insight because it gets to the heart of our dysfunctional political situation.

Representative Clyburn noted that commentators always talk about Trump and his base. He reminded us the term has two meanings and both were demonstrated in recent conversations with the President. The first meaning reflects concern for the interests of supporters, the base of political influence. The second depends on public behaviors, for politicians can be examples of high standards or they can appeal to base motives and actions by followers.

When Senators Durbin and Graham were invited to the Oval Office after an encouraging phone conversation about a bi-partisan compromise on DACA and other immigration issues, they walked into an ambush. Presidential staff brought in Republican hardliners who inflamed the President by saying the deal would not be accepted by his base. The result was shameful remarks by the President and the hardliners in the room which attacked bi-partisanship. When news of harsh comments became public, further bi-partisan efforts were undermined.

Commentators have been puzzled by the behavior of Senator Graham in recent weeks. Known for his directness and candor, Senator Graham had stopped criticizing President Trump and became a golfing partner. Last week we discovered that Senator Graham is determined to achieve meaningful immigration reform. He hoped the Mr. Hyde on view in the campaign could be transformed into a president more like Dr. Jekyll. That investment in transformation seemed to pay off when a televised bi-partisan roundtable promised acceptance of a compromise that should represent “love.” The pay-off seemed near as Senators Graham and Durbin went to the Oval Office for presidential input on the compromise.

One meaning of “base,” Representative Clyburn reminded us, is the foundation on which we build. Trump has a base of support among his party and the American people. However, that base has never exceed the mid-40% range and has shrunk in response to Mr. Hyde behaviors. The most faithful among this core of supporters are those who are pleased with “base behaviors,” Clyburn’s second meaning, displaying an unrepentant Mr. Hyde.

President Trump has taken an oath to protect the constitution and serve the American people. His attacks on the press, the justice system, our intelligence agencies, and the FBI have not complied with that oath. His actions have been intended to satisfy a core of supporters, about 30% of the population, at the expense of the 70%. Dedication to his hard-core guides behaviors that undermine bi-partisanship needed to serve more than 50% of the people.

Far worse, the actions which attract his most devoted followers appeal to base opinions and vile behaviors. Mr, Hyde as president is a model for bullying, race-baiting, and even violence by dedicated supporters. Those who don’t participate in such behaviors enjoy watching them as spectators to political forms of theatrical wrestling matches.

Representative Clyburn was right in calling Trump’s behavior in the Oval Office “base,” and Hillary Clinton was correct in referring to “deplorables” among Trump’s followers. The president’s base is not the American people, only a small portion representing the dark side of our character.

Senator Graham wants to transform President Hyde into President Jekyll. Let us pray he finds an elixir that works for as long as President Trump is in office.