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Trump will turn to these secret weapons in desperation if the economy collapses before the 2020 election

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- Commentary

President Donald Trump, in recent weeks, has been stressing both economic themes and culture war themes. The economic themes were evident during a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire on August 15, when Trump tried to frighten 401(k) owners into reelecting him and insisted, “You have no choice but to vote for me because your 401(k), everything is going to be down the tubes (under a Democratic president). So whether you love me or hate me, you’ve got to vote for me.” But if the U.S. does go into a recession in the months ahead, Trump will have a harder time selling himself as the salvation of the American economy — in which case, he would likely become even more aggressive in pushing divisive culture war themes.

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Although Trump is wildly unpopular in heavily Democratic areas of the U.S., he is still quite popular among his hardcore base — and one saw that playing out in the 2018 midterms. Democrats enjoyed a net gain of 40 seats in the House of Representatives, but Republicans slightly increased their majority in the Senate thanks, in part, to Trump’s ability to rally his base in conservative areas. And Trump’s rally-the-base approach has been painfully evident in recent weeks.

When Trump told four congresswomen of color to go back to the countries they originally came from — even though three of them (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Ayanna Pressley) were born and raised in the U.S. — it was a rally-the-base move. When he tried to discredit Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings by describing Baltimore (a predominantly African-American city) as a “rat- and rodent-infested mess,” he was clearly trying to rally his base. But when he was discussing 401(k) plans in New Hampshire, Trump appeared to be trying to expand his base and convince non-culture warriors to vote for him.

The harder it becomes for Trump to campaign on the economy in the months ahead, the more important culture war issues and rally-the-base moves will become for him. It isn’t inconceivable that Trump could pull off a narrow Electoral College victory in 2020 even if the U.S. goes into a recession, but doing do would mean firing up his base as much as possible and benefitting from a low Democratic turnout — and there are many culture war and nativist themes that could become even more important to Trump if the economy declines.

Abortion is at the top of the list. When he was a Blue Dog Democrat back in the 1990s, Trump was highly critical of abortion yet reluctantly pro-choice; these days, he is vehemently anti-choice and has vowed to only nominate severe social conservatives and “pro-life” zealots to the U.S. Supreme Court. So far, he has made good on that promise with Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh — and he has made it abundantly clear that if he is reelected and more seats become available on the Supreme Court, he will continue to do so and make the Court even more socially conservative.

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As it stands now, Roe v. Wade is likely to be overturned. But that possibility will become even stronger if Trump has a chance to nominate more Supreme Court justices.

Trump, in the months ahead, is also likely to fan the flames of the Culture War by reminding the Christian right that Supreme Court justices aren’t the only people he would be nominating for the federal judiciary in 2021 and beyond. During a second term, he could nominate more far-right social conservatives to the lower federal courts as well.

The Christian right, as journalist Chris Hedges has often stressed, is not only a fundamentalist religious movement — it is also a movement with severe nativist and white nationalist tendencies. And Trump can rally his Christian Right supporters not only with abortion or school prayer, but also, with nativism and anti-immigrant rhetoric. The worse the U.S. economy becomes for Trump, the more important issues like immigration and building a U.S./Mexico border wall become to his 2020 campaign.

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The Department of Labor, under Trump, has proposed rolling back Obama-era protections against anti-gay discrimination in the workplace and allowing companies with government contracts to discriminate against those who offend a contractor’s religious views. Christian Right groups like the Family Research Council and Liberty Counsel are applauding the move, which gives Trump yet another thing to campaign on when he is pursuing Culture War votes in 2020.

Anti-Islam extremism is another issue Trump will likely pander to in 2020. Even President George W. Bush was careful to draw a distinction between radical jihadist Islam and non-radical Islam; Trump’s Christian Right and anti-Islam supporters draw no such distinction.

Christian fundamentalist support for Israel is another Culture War issue for Trump to campaign on. Bizarrely, the Christian Right believes that Jews are doomed to hell unless they convert to fundamentalist Christianity, yet consider themselves stridently pro-Israel — and claiming that Democrats could never love Israel as much as he does is a way for Trump to rally his far-right base.

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If the U.S. economy goes south, that doesn’t make Trump any less dangerous; if anything, it makes him even more dangerous and more desperate to fire up extremists in his base. And whether he is ranting about abortion, illegal immigration, a U.S./Mexico border wall, Islam, or countries with predominantly non-white populations, Trump will have many ways to pander to his supporters’ worst instincts in the 2020 election.


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