Dividing to Rule: Trump’s Midterm Mayhem

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump addressing a rally in Topeka, Kansas, October 6, 2018

For once, the hyperbole might be true: the midterm elections to be held next Tuesday are as significant as any in memory, destined to have an enormous impact on this country’s political condition for at least two years, perhaps longer. Arousing more excitement than any previous midterms, they’ve been drawing early voters in unprecedented numbers. And although the first midterms in a president’s first term often reflect the voters’ views of him (even though his name isn’t on the ballot), no previous president has been so intensely involved as Donald Trump has, which may not be an unalloyed blessing either for his party’s candidates or for the country.

Some Republican candidates asked that Trump bypass their district or state, or chose not to appear with him if he did show up—a similar thing happened with Barack Obama in his midterm elections, especially in 2014 (whereas the power of the Tea Party in 2010 came as a shock). And some Republicans have preferred to run on issues—either national or local—that they’d sooner discuss than the president’s record, such as it is. They’ve professed, incorrectly, to having supported health care coverage for pre-existing conditions, though like Trump they’d supported killing Obamacare in its entirety. But with Republicans’ electoral fortunes so closely tied to Trump’s standing, many have lost control of their campaigns. As his schedule of rallies has built to a crescendo in the final days before the vote, Trump has imposed his toxic brew of race, xenophobia, and nationalism—with a dose of anti-Semitism.

Trump’s incessant pounding away at the press, calling it, autocrat-style, “the enemy of the people,” together with his ever-magnified lying, have made facts and honest debate elusive. His exaggerations distort reality: he’s been inflating the size of his crowds ever since his Inauguration, and this week his press secretary asserted that he’d won the popular vote in 2016, when, of course, he trailed Hillary Clinton by nearly three million votes. In cooking up the enthusiasm of his base on a soufflé of lies, Trump may well be making future trouble for himself, but winning, even the day, the hour, is more important to Trump than storing up credibility for a moment of national crisis. A president dependent upon an uninformed following on one side, and facing a large segment of the populace disinclined to believe anything he says on the other, does not stand on solid ground.

A critical factor in any election is the relative energy on each side. Ever since the stunning result of the 2016 presidential election, the Democrats were the more motivated party—until the hearings in late September on Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which invigorated and unified Republican voters, tightening numerous races. The Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans rallied behind Kavanaugh and the question, which his own performance before the committee had raised, of his fitness for the Supreme Court transmogrified into a pitched battle between Democrats and Republicans over whether he was to be confirmed. Suddenly, the Republicans had a cause that revved them up about the midterms.

But with Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the passage of time, the passion over that issue faded. Reportedly, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell told Trump that the president was the only figure who could stir up Republican voters and keep them simmering. This was undoubtedly a message Trump welcomed: being the center of attention at rallies beats governing, which bores him.

While most of the popular American presidents appealed to the nation’s optimism, offering hope—think TR, FDR, JFK—Trump plays on fear. Producing successes is more difficult than peddling fear, and Trump has an uncanny ability to control the narrative in spite of an often scattershot-seeming approach. But there have been a few occasions when the press and political opponents have succeeded in pushing him back on his heels. One recent example was over the US response to the horrifying murder in Turkey of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Allowing himself to be hamstrung by his public (and perhaps private) dealings with the Saudis, Trump was forced into a reactive position. Clearly, he’s already been struggling against an expected report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on obstruction of justice and his campaign’s dealings with Russia—that is, unless Trump succeeds in shutting down the Mueller investigation after the midterms.

To regain his aggressive posture, Trump has returned to a favorite theme: that immigrants present a threat to our national wellbeing. He’s been using that tool ever since his June 2015 announcement that he’d run for president. The Muslim travel ban, first issued one week into his presidency, revised until his advisers came up with a version that a majority of the Supreme Court would swallow, was the administrative prototype of Trump’s ginning the fear of others for political gain. The slow progress of a caravan of, initially, about 7,000 Honduran migrants fleeing poverty and violence has given him a useful tool for winning the midterms—or so he thought, but it now appears that his repetitive bombast, while appealing to his base, is turning off the remaining undecideds and suburban voters who will decide several elections.


With the caravan still nearly a thousand miles away, at least a month’s trek from the US border, and with some of its participants already dropped out from fatigue and injury, Trump ordered 5,200 troops to the border (in addition to the border patrol agents already there), as if a major invasion were imminent. Trump has been using the word “invasion,” though it’s estimated that perhaps only hundreds will reach the US border. Then, on Wednesday of this week, Trump upped the ante, saying he’d send 15,000 troops to the border, roughly the number of military currently stationed in Afghanistan. Trump is treating the nation’s military as his political plaything. He also said the soldiers would fire on immigrants who threw rocks at them—a violation of military policy.

The president further stoked fear by claiming, with zero evidence, that “Middle Easterners”—in other words, terrorists—were among those in the caravan. (Some allies at Fox News charged that people in that group were bringing smallpox and leprosy—a terrifying word from Biblical times.) The fevered minds of some of his followers have led them to suggest that George Soros’s money is behind what Trump has called this “assault on our country”—and the president himself in mid-October tweeted a video that purported to show someone connected to Soros handing out cash to the migrants. Trump’s toying with a conspiracy theory that stirred anti-Semitism exposed him to bitter criticism after a man carrying an assault rifle and shouting that Jews should be killed, murdered eleven worshippers at their Saturday prayers last weekend. In the wake of this horror, many recalled Trump’s infamous remark after the trouble last year in Charlottesville, in which neo-Nazis attacked counter-protesters, that there were “very fine people on both sides.” Just ten days before this election, that black Saturday in Pittsburgh has cast a pall over the nation. But Trump, typically, observed it briefly and then moved on. 

Trump’s utter inadequacy as a healing president was already apparent in his inconsistent, awkward response to the discovery of some fifteen pipe bombs that turned out to have been sent by a fanatical Trump supporter to prominent Democrats and critics of his presidency (including George Soros)—people who’d been frequent targets of Trump’s rants. Soros is, in the parlance of Trump and many of his followers, a “globalist” (for which read: a Jew devoted less to his country than to the rest of the world), while Trump had gratuitously declared himself a “nationalist”—the word “white” unuttered but understood.

Trump made an adequately solemn statement about the bombs that could have ended the life of numerous prominent Americans when he appeared before a group that was gathered in the East Room of the White House to witness a signing of a bipartisan anti-opioid bill. But later that night, he followed this  by, in effect, winking to the crowd at a rally in Wisconsin (“I’m being nice”). It wouldn’t have been Trump’s style to at least call the previous Democratic presidents (Clinton and Obama) who’d been sent bombs, as many critics thought he should have. And to make such calls to the rest might have appeared to legitimize people he’d long demeaned. Instead, he smiled as, still, crowds chanted “Lock her up,” meaning, of course, Hillary Clinton, who was no longer any kind of threat to Trump.

Trump even complained that all the attention being paid to the pipe bombs and Pittsburgh killings slowed his momentum. By the end of last week, Trump’s approval rating had dropped four points. The Republican Party’s closing ad for the midterms contained no reference to Trump. 

Something may indeed be happening beneath the surface among Republicans. Trump had earlier baffled Republicans and his own administration by promising a new middle-class tax cut before the election—an impossible feat since Congress wasn’t in session; Trump claimed that his people had been working on the cut twenty-four hours a day. Congressional Republicans also sidestepped his hysteria about the approaching caravan. And then, not a single Republican leader accepted Trump’s invitation to join him on a trip to Pittsburgh this week. Members of a president’s party usually angle like mad to board Air Force One.


Trump himself was largely unwelcome in Pittsburgh then; grieving families were just beginning to bury their murdered loved ones and friends. (His aides scheduled the visit for a day when it wouldn’t be followed by a rally.) By the time Trump touched down there, more than 70,000 people had signed an open letter declaring that he wouldn’t be welcome in the city until he denounced white nationalism and stopped “targeting” minorities in his rallies and policies. Even state and local officials shunned the president and first lady, along with Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, who had pushed the president to make the trip, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. Only the synagogue’s rabbi and, for some reason, Israel’s ambassador to the US were prepared to greet the small delegation.

Until now, differences between the president and his ostensible congressional backers have been kept mainly behind closed doors, confided to reporters off the record. But Trump may now have widened an incipient fissure within his party. When he asserted that he could, by executive order, eliminate the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship, the idea was summarily dismissed by the outgoing House Speaker, Paul Ryan, heretofore one of Trump’s most consistent enablers. Trump’s showing of an outright racist anti-immigrant ad on Thursday, coupled with a rambling White House address that his aides had advertised as a proposal to tighten the terms for asylum, never got to that point but injected still more venom in the campaign. But Trump at least held out the presumably tempting promise of stiffer anti-immigration policy after next week’s elections. 

The White House reportedly gave up on stopping the Democrats from taking over the House some time ago, while, as for the Senate, the consensus is that the Republicans will at least maintain their narrow majority. The problem for the Democrats is that the map of the Senate seats that are being contested this year favors the Republicans. And no one can predict the effect of the Republicans’ nationwide effort to suppress the vote of minorities. But the Democrats are likely to pick up several governorships, reclaiming some of their losses in 2016, and these can have a big effect on the contest in 2020.

Trump may stumble at times, but his shrewdness is not to be minimized: his anti-immigration rhetoric could well be an effective way to get his base—considered to be about 35 percent of the voters—to the polls. Not enough to win but a sizable chunk to keep on his side as he prepares to run for re-election in 2020. In fact, some stops on his schedule of midterm rallies seem to have more pertinence for 2020 than for now. As for their effect on 2018, they could also motivate Democrats to get themselves to the polls. But the intensity of sentiment on one side or the other is hard for polling to capture at this point and may be underestimated in either direction, though I suspect that there’s more energy behind the Democrats now than is being generally assumed.

Elections are supposed to be our way of peacefully resolving our differences. But one seemingly inescapable outcome this time around is that, thanks to the hard fights and the president’s heavy participation in them, this midterm election will leave an already riven country even more divided than before.

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