And so far the Trump emphasis this year is on…immigration, trade and infrastructure.
That represents a significant turn in the Washington agenda for 2018, one little-noticed amid the controversy over the alleged presidential remark disparaging immigration from “shithole” countries. After a year focused more on tax cuts, health care and deregulation—issues that tend to appeal more to traditional Republicans—the focus so far this year has moved decisively back to standard Trump issues.
That shift has the potential to help shore up and energize the Trump base in time for this year’s crucial elections for control of Congress. It also presents an opportunity to look back at the condition of that Trump base after one year—as well as why people voted for President Trump in the first place, a question that has become clouded by mythology.
First, a look at that Trump base. A dive into Wall Street Journal/NBC News polling suggests that, after Mr. Trump’s tumultuous first year in office, the president’s support among his staunchest proponents has eroded some, though still is pretty solid. Among whites without a college degree—a core Trump support group—approval of the job he is doing as president slipped to 55% in December from 59% in February. Disapproval has risen to 41% from 32%.
Similarly, the share of whites without a college degree who have a negative image of Mr. Trump personally has risen to 40% from 33%.
Those still are pretty solid numbers, and significantly better than those the president gets among other Americans. Among whites with a college education, for example, almost six in 10 disapprove of the job he is doing and hold a negative view of him personally.
In short, the base is still the base, though it has eroded around the edges.
So a return to the signature Trump issues would seem to be a way to end and perhaps reverse that erosion at the base. And it probably does. But here, there also are some surprises.
There is no doubt that immigration already has moved to the top of the Washington agenda in 2018. Mr. Trump is locked in either negotiations or a fight—and it’s hard to know from day to day which it is—with Democrats over the fate of “Dreamer” immigrants who came here illegally as children, over paying for a wall along the Mexican border and over broader immigration reform.
Given how much Mr. Trump talked about immigration and a wall during the campaign, this turn isn’t surprising. What is surprising is how low immigration and the wall ranked on the list of reasons his supports actually voted for him.
When his voters were asked last December, shortly after the election, why they backed Mr. Trump, just 20% said taking a tough approach on immigration and the wall was the most important reason. More than twice as many said simply improving the economy overall was most important.
Similarly, in polling around the time Mr. Trump was inaugurated in January, just 31% of whites without a college degree—again, a strong Trump constituency—said building a wall was an absolute priority.
Trade and infrastructure improvements, by contrast, ranked far higher as a matter of concern. Among those same white noncollege Americans, 65% said imposing tariffs against countries that take advantage of trade agreements was a top priority, and the same share cited improving infrastructure.
So there is little doubt he’s speaking to his people on trade, a subject about to start rising in visibility. The administration is approaching decisions on imposing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, on steps to slow imports of solar panels and washing machines, and on penalties against China for seizing American intellectual property. And talks to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement are reaching a critical juncture.
Similarly, the White House is promising action soon on infrastructure, an issue Mr. Trump has started bringing up with more regularity.
Of course, much of Mr. Trump’s campaign appeal was based not on specific policy positions, but more on his pugilistic attitude—and the simple fact he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, an object of hatred for many Trump voters. More than four in 10 Trump voters said making sure she didn’t become president was the top reason they voted for him.
Still, the evidence suggests that Mr. Trump is speaking directly to his base with his 2018 emphasis on trade and infrastructure—but also expending a lot of capital and earning a lot of enmity at home and abroad on immigration and building a wall, subjects not as central for his supporters as commonly supposed.