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The Trump campaign's unsteady effort to bend reality

President Donald Trump arrives to speaks at an

President Donald Trump arrives to speaks at an event on police reform, in the Rose Garden of the White House on Tuesday. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

The past few weeks of protests have revealed some dramatic shifts in American public opinion about police treatment of African Americans and other minorities. There are a lot of things going on here, but one important phenomenon is an ebbing of pluralistic ignorance in this area.

Pluralistic ignorance is a concept in which individuals within a social group hold a policy preference about a particular issue but believe that other group members hold different preferences, even when they do not. For decades, the belief has been that a "law and order" approach to policing represents the majority view. The surge of protests and polling on this issue reveals, however, that a solid majority of Americans think there is a problem here. To be clear, this does not mean that the American public wants to defund the police or anything remotely like that. Still, there has been a shift, and the president is on the wrong side of this issue.

Another area where there might soon be a shift in pluralistic ignorance is in the belief that President Donald Trump will be re-elected. The expert consensus right now seems clear: Bad fundamentals, abysmal polling and a shift in prediction markets all point to Trump losing to Joe Biden if the election were held right now. Obviously, things can change over the next five months. Nevertheless, the persistence of the pandemic and the nature of public opinion right now mean that such change will not be easy.

As of early May, however, a majority of Americans told pollsters that they believed Trump would win. Which kind of makes sense. Trump is the incumbent, and the polling in swing states in 2016 underestimated Trump's performance.

What is interesting is that a large element of Trump's campaign seems predicated not on changing the actual polls but rather sustaining this meta-belief among Americans that Trump will win. As Bloomberg News' Ramesh Ponnuru complains, compared with 2016 much of Trump's campaign seems designed to alienate swing voters: "He keeps catering to the very conservative voters who are already with him rather than working on keeping wavering supporters or winning over nonsupporters."

Where Trump and his campaign have invested effort, however, is in maintaining the perception that he is destined to win.

We see this in multiple Trump campaign tactics. There is the campaign's demand that CNN retract and apologize for polling results that showed Biden with a 14-point national lead in early June. There is the largely successful efforts to keep congressional GOP members loyal to Trump. There is the president's Twitter defense of his awkward descent down some stairs after his West Point address — because he knows that was a bad, bad optic. And there is the return of campaign rallies that even conservative commentators think are a bad idea.

Most of all, there is Politico's David Siders reporting that state and local Republicans believe that a landslide victory is coming in November:

Interviews with more than 50 state, district and county Republican Party chairs depict a version of the electoral landscape that is no worse for Trump than six months ago — and possibly even slightly better. According to this view, the coronavirus is on its way out and the economy is coming back. Polls are unreliable, Joe Biden is too frail to last, and the media still doesn't get it.

" 'The more bad things happen in the country, it just solidifies support for Trump,' said Phillip Stephens, GOP chairman in Robeson County, N.C., one of several rural counties in that swing state that shifted from supporting Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. 'We're calling him "Teflon Trump." Nothing's going to stick, because if anything, it's getting more exciting than it was in 2016.'

"This year, Stephens said, 'We're thinking landslide.' "

Note that none of this has anything to do with policy or ideology. Rather, the Trump campaign is trying to project the image of being a winner.

Ponnuru thinks that Trump is catering to already-committed die-hard conservatives. He may well be correct, but I would offer an alternative hypothesis: Trump is catering to supporters who like Trump because he is a winner but now secretly fear that he is losing.

This is fully consistent with Trump's argument about the utility of truthful hyperbole made in "The Art of the Deal" oh so long ago: "I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration, and a very effective form of promotion."

It might be effective, preventing Trump from further falling in the polls. There is another possibility, however: That a swath of Trump's supporters decide he is a dead-bang loser after all. As family members and trusted aides turn on him, some of his supporters might decide they do not want to be the last rat on the sinking ship.

Daniel Drezner wrote this piece for The Washington Post.

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