Failure is a great teacher, but only if you actually understand you've failed and are willing to admit it. And when it comes to the midterm elections, President Trump admits nothing. Which suggests both that he has learned nothing, and that his 2020 re-election campaign—and everything that comes between now and then—will reflect that vacuum of understanding.
On Sunday, Fox News aired an interview Chris Wallace conducted with the president, and the topic of the Democrats' extraordinary midterm victory naturally came up. Trump tried to insist that it had actually been a spectacular victory, not just for Republicans but for him personally. He repeated "I won the Senate" three times, claiming absurdly that the GOP's gain of two Senate seats was "a far greater victory" than taking the House was for Democrats. But confronted with all the ways Democrats won, not just in terms of seats but with key constituencies and in key states, Trump switched gears to insist the election had nothing to do with him. "I didn't run," he said. "I wasn't running. My name wasn't on the ballot."
This is spin, of course, but I don't think Trump is only spinning his audience. He's also spinning himself. His insecurity and narcissism are so powerful that he can genuinely convince himself that when a Republican wins an election it's only because of him ("I won the Senate"), and when a Republican loses an election he wasn't involved ("I wasn't running").
There will be no reflecting, no contemplation, no after-action report. If there were, Trump might ask himself whether the strategy he employed in the last few weeks before the election—one focusing on fear of immigrants—not only didn't work, but backfired. You'll recall that in rally after rally and on a near-daily basis on Twitter, Trump would declare that a caravan of migrants walking slowly through Mexico was a terrifying threat that had to be confronted lest America be overrun by this band of murderers and thugs. He even sent thousands of American troops down to the border as though an army of invasion (a word he often used) were on its way, and not a bunch of people seeking to present themselves lawfully and request asylum.
But despite the fact that Trump got an assist from the news media, which ran endless coverage of the caravan (and has now almost completely dropped the subject just as the president has), the strategy failed. If anything, rather than convincing conservative whites to flock to the polls to stop the invading dark-skinned horde, it only reinforced what people don't like about Trump and won more votes for Democrats.
Trump doesn't see it that way, though—he thinks the election was a success for him. Which is why he'll almost certainly employ the same strategy of fear and hatred when he tries to get reelected in 2020.
Think about it: Can you imagine Donald Trump running a campaign that wasn't based on resentment and division? He doesn't do it just because he thinks it works, he also does it because it's a reflection of who he really is and what he really believes.
Chris Wallace got at this question near the end of his interview with Trump when he played clips of the president lobbing personal insults at female African American reporters (to whom he responds with a particular venom) and told Trump of his conversations with Republicans pained by the president's personal jerkitude. "The one thing they say is, why do you have to be so divisive? Why don't you do more to bring the country together?" Trump responded, "I think that if I was very different, I wouldn't have gotten what we had to get. We got the biggest tax cuts in history, we got ANWR approved."
You may read that and think it's utterly ludicrous—he wouldn't have been able convince Republicans to cut taxes for the wealthy and corporations had he not been so petty, vindictive, and belligerent all the time? But it seems he actually believes it, not because it's some kind of carefully implemented strategy but because it's just who he is. Trump is petty, vindictive, and belligerent, and to act in a different way would mean being untrue to himself.
Furthermore, Trump looks at recent history and says: This is working great. I became president and got some things I wanted over the last few years while everyone was telling me not to be myself, but I was successful because I didn't listen to them. Sure, my party lost the House and lots of downballot races, but that's only because my people couldn't vote for me. Once I'm on the ballot again they'll flock to the polls, provided I give them the hateful rhetoric that makes them cheer.
It may be a horrific thing for the country and for democracy, but it's probably good for Democrats. Trump can't come up with a better strategy, and he isn't capable of reaching out to those who don't already support him. This—the guy with the 40 percent approval ratings, who motivates his opponents to unheard-of heights of activism and mobilization, who alienates suburban moderates, who can't go a week without getting in a pointless squabble with a celebrity—is all there is. There isn't a more moderate and clever Trump waiting to be unveiled.
And imagine if the economy takes a downturn between now and then, as it well might. How will Trump respond if he can't even claim that he has brought prosperity to all? Will he reach out to Democrats and find ways to appeal across party lines? Or will he decide with even more conviction that hate and fear are what will save him?
We all know the answer.