Trump, Trump, Trump: A Losing Strategy

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Another day, another dizzying array of Trump news.

The president glibly tweeted about bombing Syria. He talked about reversing a centerpiece of his own trade policy. The contents of the James Comey book began to emerge, with new details about the “pee tape.” And news broke that the National Enquirer apparently killed a story about President Trump fathering a child with his housekeeper.

Given all of this craziness, today seems a good day to tell a story that I’ve been wanting to share with you for awhile:

For a recent column, I did some retrospective reporting on last year’s Alabama Senate campaign. During that race, the progressive group Priorities USA came up with a series of political messages and then ran online surveys to see which advertisements resonated with voters. The goal was to see which were most and least likely to motivate African-Americans to turn out and vote for Doug Jones, the Democrat running against Roy Moore.

Priorities USA had a long list of potential themes to choose from: Moore’s history as an accused molester; his ties to white supremacists; his opposition to Obamacare; Doug Jones’s endorsements from civil-rights leaders; and more.

The most effective message, as I described in the column, ended up being one about education — how Jones would help more people go to college and get good jobs. I didn’t have room in the column to describe what the least effective message was: One that cast Moore as a rubber stamp for President Trump.

People who heard this message actually seemed to become less likely to vote. As Civis Analytics, a data firm hired by Priorities, wrote in a memo, “This finding is consistent with previous research on African-American voters, which suggests that many feel less motivated to be politically involved when Trump’s name is invoked.”

I was surprised by the result. I figured that anger about Trump would inspire all sorts of progressive voters to become more politically engaged. But Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorites, had a good explanation.

To many African-American voters in Alabama, Cecil said, “Donald Trump is the living embodiment of the idea that voting doesn’t matter.” Trump is profoundly unfit to be a president — a congenital liar and racist who lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes. And yet president he is.

The midterm election will be the most consequential political event in the country this year, as The New Yorker’s David Remnick has suggested. It’s a chance for Americans to reject Trumpism and to hold Trump accountable for his actions. But making that happen won’t necessarily involve focusing on the man himself all of the time.

“I don’t think making tired partisan arguments or saying one more mean thing about Donald Trump is going to do it,” as Cecil says.

I’m not suggesting that the country ignore the day-to-day news about Trump. I’m merely suggesting that we all keep it in perspective.

More Comey. Michiko Kakutani returns to the pages of The Times, with a review of Comey’s book. She writes that Comey’s themes include “the toxic consequences of lying; and the corrosive effects of choosing loyalty to an individual over truth and the rule of law.”

Reader critique: Paul Ryan. I received a thoughtful piece of criticism in response to yesterday’s newsletter, which praised Paul Ryan for, if nothing else, being honest about his desire to cut Medicare and Social Security. The email comes from a reader who’s been involved in health care policy and focuses on Obamacare, also known as the A.C.A. Here’s an excerpt:

“I agree that Paul Ryan has been more open than most Republicans to saying he wants to change Social Security and Medicare, but he has not shown the same candor about the ACA. One of the Republicans’ main electoral and governing points for the past 8 years has been that they could keep almost everyone insured while having lower costs and fewer rules than the ACA — a position for which there has never been credible evidence ….

“I think he’s knowledgeable enough to know this. And since the ACA has been a live policy issue, which Social Security and Medicare have not been, this failure of candor is much more important than his very partial candor on the other. So, even within entitlement issues alone, I think he’s pretty hypocritical.”

Programming note. We’ve now received almost 1,000 responses to our question about which opinions you think are not sufficiently reflected in the national media. We’re reading through them now and will describe them next week.

I hope you enjoy your weekend.

You can join me on Twitter (@DLeonhardt) and Facebook. I am also writing a daily email newsletter and invite you to subscribe.

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