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Donald Trump Is Trying The Same Trick That Got Him Elected In 2016

This article is part of HuffPost’s biweekly politics newsletter. Click here to subscribe.

The most politically significant segment of Donald Trump’s interview on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday was his discussion of abortion, although perhaps not for the reason you’ve heard.

During the conversation, the former and possibly future president called Florida’s six-week ban on abortion a “terrible thing and a terrible mistake.” It was a direct attack on rival GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, who as governor of Florida signed that prohibition into law, and it was consistent with previous statements Trump had made about Republicans alienating the public with extreme positions on abortion.

The “Meet the Press” comment drew some strong rebukes from social conservatives and, in theory, that pushback could do enough to jeopardize his standing with evangelical voters to give a GOP challenger a chance. But a new Emerson College Polling survey puts support for Trump at 59% among likely Republican voters, at least 47 points ahead of DeSantis or any other rival. It’s the latest in a string of surveys that suggest Trump’s hold on the Republican electorate remains firm.

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That’s why the best reading of Trump’s statements on abortion is as a sign of confidence. He’s not worried about the primaries anymore. He’s thinking about the 2024 general election and positioning himself as acceptable to the undecided, more moderate voters he’d need to win next year.

Of course, this will require some audacious efforts at disinformation, about both what he did while he was president and what he’d do if he gets to the White House again. Remember, Trump appointed half of the Supreme Court majority that ended federal abortion rights and has bragged more than once that “I was able to terminate Roe v. Wade.”

But Trump is a specialist at convincing voters he’s something he’s not. He pulled it off in 2016. Now he may be on his way to doing it again — and not just on abortion.

Historical Revisionism, With A Dollop Of Rhetorical Chaos

It’s easy to forget, but during his previous campaign Trump went out of his way to promote himself as a different, less conservative Republican ― somebody who would stand up for workers, protect entitlement programs and give everybody “great health care.”

This rhetoric belied his actual policy commitments. These included big tax cuts (which gave wildly disproportionate benefits to corporations and the wealthy) and a repeal of the Affordable Care Act (which would have taken insurance away from millions and preexisting-condition protections away from millions more). But those contradictions rarely got the attention they deserved in the media or the political conversation more broadly, and by the end of the campaign, polling showed that voters thought Trump was markedly less conservative than past Republican nominees.

One likely reason for the confusion about Trump was the sheer volume of inconsistencies, untruths and outrages he produced every day. The rhetorical chaos made it difficult for fact-checkers and critics to spotlight any single claim, which probably made it easier for Trump avoid the “extremist” label that other Republicans received for their positions.

The strategy may have even been intentional, as a political version of the saying — commonly attributed to W.C. Fields — that “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull.”

Purposeful or not, the approach was on display again during Sunday’s “Meet the Press” interview. In addition to criticizing DeSantis’ abortion ban, Trump talked about bringing left and right together on a compromise, so there would be “peace on that issue.” But then he explained that what he had in mind was a prohibition after “a number of weeks or months or however you want to define it.”

A federal ban along those lines, which is what Republicans in Congress have talked about passing, would supersede existing abortion-rights protections in states like California, Michigan and New York.

To be clear, Trump wouldn’t give a straight answer on whether he supports such a ban. When NBC’s Kristen Welker pressed him on whether he’d sign a federal ban, he started by saying no but then quickly said Democrats at the state level shouldn’t be able to allow abortion past a certain point. He later said: “It could be state or it could be federal. I don’t frankly care.”

Along the way, Trump also argued that Democrats were the true extremists, repeatedly invoking the easily (and frequently) debunked myth that some party officials have enacted laws allowing physicians to “kill the baby after birth.” (As HuffPost’s Lydia O’Connor noted this week, the claim is “categorically false. It is not legal in a single state to willfully end the life of a newborn.”)

A Play For Moderates On Other Issues, Too

It’s not just abortion where Trump is trying to position himself — or, more accurately, reposition himself — in ways that appeal to swing voters.

Trump has made a big deal about standing up for American workers, especially in the auto industry. Earlier this week, campaign officials leaked word that Trump would soon visit Michigan and maybe even join some of the striking United Auto Workers members on the picket lines.

The appearance is sure to get lots of attention, in a state absolutely crucial to Trump’s electoral fortunes. But a better indicator of Trump’s loyalties might be the staunchly anti-union appointments he made to the National Labor Relations Board, or the cold shoulder he gave striking General Motors employees back in 2019.

And that’s just what he’s done in the past. Going forward, Trump has vowed to repeal the new electric vehicle subsidies that Democrats passed and President Joe Biden signed ― and that are, at this very moment, underwriting literally tens of thousands of new jobs at factories across the Midwest and South.

Take away those subsidies and those jobs probably go overseas, especially to China, which is precisely the thing Trump says he is against.

He is also talking about reducing the price of prescription drugs, just as he did when running in 2016. (HuffPost’s Daniel Marans wrote about that here.) While Trump actually made some efforts along those lines during his time in office, the best he could come up with was a series of modest executive orders, several of which ended up stuck in litigation because they were so poorly drafted. He also failed to get legislation through Congress, in no small part because GOP leaders were opposed and Trump refused to pressure them.

Biden, by contrast, actually got major drug pricing reforms through Congress. The Inflation Reduction Act, the same law subsidizing electric vehicles, includes a variety of measures to lower prescription prices in Medicare ― among them, a provision giving the federal government the power to negotiate prices directly.

Trump hasn’t said what he thinks of this, but Republicans in Congress have eyed that provision for repeal — and it’s no stretch to think Trump would support that as surely as he did the attempts at Obamacare repeal.

The investment in American manufacturing jobs and push to lower Medicare drug prices are incredibly popular, as is Biden’s commitment to abortion rights. That undoubtedly helps explain Trump’s moves and rhetoric. If he can blunt Biden’s appeal on these issues even a little bit, he could change the outcome in enough closely contested states to win the presidency.

The gambit worked for him in 2016, and it could certainly work again. It all depends on whether the public can figure out what is happening, and judge him accordingly.