One of the most fascinating aspects of politics right now is the political realignment happening in the country. The non-college, white working class that was a staple of the Democratic Party for most of the 20th century has shifted toward the GOP. The college educated white upper middle class that had made up a significant part of the Republican base since the end of World War II is now part of the Democratic coalition. Non-white voters that have traditionally supported Democrats may follow suit, although more slowly, along educational lines.
Trump seems to get it more than most people in either party and he’s like a bellwether to the consternation of Republicans and to the detriment of Democrats. His loyal supporters lack any real ideology and are mostly reactionary. He understands them inherently.
In the past week, Trump has broken with conservative orthodoxy in ways that might sink other candidates, but have little impact on his chances to be the GOP nominee for president again. He told Kristen Welker in his Meet the Press interview that he would look for a middle ground on abortion and opposes fetal heartbeat bills. He claimed he would bring the country together and put the abortion debate behind us, something most Americans probably want, regardless of their stance on the issue.
Republicans and Democrats both pounced. Republicans challenging him for the nomination and pro-life groups blasted Trump for not meeting their litmus tests on the issue. Democrats reminded voters that Trump’s Supreme Court picks overturned Roe v. Wade. Trump responded by agreeing with the Democrats, pushing back against his Republican opponents and reinforcing the Democrats’ criticism. Pundits say he got hit by both sides. In a general election, that’s probably good.
Trump also broke with Republicans by appearing to side with the United Auto Workers in their dispute with management. While South Carolinians Tim Scott and Nikki Haley condemned the United Auto Workers for striking, Trump announced he’s meeting with them. Instead of attending the debate next week, he’s going to Detroit to give a primetime speech that competes with it. Trump understands that the realignment taking place includes union workers who have traditionally voted Democratic but whose politics are more populist than progressive. While the union leadership might be supporting Biden, a lot of workers supported Trump and probably still do.
Autoworkers have always been more populist than progressive. In 1972, they supported George Wallace in the Democratic primary for president and Nixon won Michigan by double digits. Trump knows that he won’t get into the White House again without Michigan so aligning himself with the striking workers is good politics.
The workers are receptive to Trump, even if they’ve been giving Democrats their votes in recent elections. One union official told Politico, “We haven’t had a president in there for years, with the exception of Trump, that was really for the people, all the way back to the Reagan days.”
Pundits and the political class should recognize that Trump is not running a primary campaign. He believes, with good reason and a lot of evidence, that he is already the GOP nominee. He’s attempting to neutralize abortion, the wedge issue Democrats believe could give them victories up and down the ballot next year. Trump does not believe evangelical voters will abandon him. He still believes that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and [he] wouldn’t lose any voters.” That applies to fifteen week old fetuses, too. There’s really no reason to believe otherwise.
Trump’s outreach to the UAW shows he understands that the white working class includes union workers. Scott, Haley, and other Republicans will find themselves on the wrong side of the political realignment happening right now. Trump knows that he won’t likely get union money, but he believes that he can get a significant portion of union votes. Again, he’s not worrying about primary voters. He’s trying to cut into a block of voters that Democrats believe should be theirs.
Donald Trump understands the American electorate better than most pundits and politicians. He’s recognized the political realignment taking place in the country and he knows that most voters have more nuanced positions than the interest groups that drive and fund the two parties. He also knows that his cult-like following is not going to abandon him, giving him the leeway to take positions other politicians eschew. He can get away with taking contradictory political positions that would cost other candidates support.
Joe Biden is Trump’s foil because he holds similarly contradictory characteristics that make him more attractive to a broader audience than a lot of other Democratic candidates. He’s a devout Catholic who is personally pro-life in a party that is decidedly pro-choice. He sees himself as a blue-collar politician even as the college-educated whites replace working class whites as part of the Democratic coalition. He likes American made muscle cars, not European sports cars and he’s has been the most pro-union president in decades. He’s a stronger candidate because he doesn’t necessarily check all of the boxes.
Neither man is articulate. Trump often speaks in incomplete sentences. Biden is a gaffe machine. While pundits and analysts ridicule their miscues, voters ignore them, maybe because their clumsy oratory makes them more human. They certainly never held it against George W. Bush.
Trump and Biden face off against each other in an evolving political landscape. Biden’s greatest liability is his age. Trump is under indictment on numerous charges in numerous jurisdictions. Pundits, politicians, and maybe voters see these candidates as deeply flawed choices, but both men bridge the gap of the new political alignment that appeals to voters in the middle, not just the base of their respective parties.