For months, President Donald Trump has been trying to nationalize the midterm elections. The strategy had a certain logic — until this past week.
Normally, there is a dramatic falloff in turnout from a presidential election to a midterm. But given that Trump’s base adores him, if he can get those voters to turn out at anything like 2016 rates, the usual rules won’t apply and his allies will hold Congress.
Thus, Trump has been campaigning for Republicans far more aggressively than the usual president in a midterm ― certainly more aggressively than a president with overall popularity ratings in the mid-forties in a good week. In some GOP quarters, optimism was growing about the party’s prospects on Nov. 6.
But then something happened that threw Trump off balance. Hateful chickens came home to roost.
Just days after Trump praised Rep. Greg Gianforte of Montana for decking a journalist ―“Anybody that can do a body-slam,” Trump said, “That’s my kind of guy” ― pipe bombs started arriving at the offices or homes of Democratic politicians and prominent critics of Trump who have been demonized by the president. Trump indignantly blamed the news media for devoting attention to the attempted bombings, thus upstaging his campaign.
Trump supporters in far-right media took to Twitter and the airwaves to claim that the bombs had actually been sent by liberals in a “false flag” operation, “carefully planned for the midterms,” as Jacob Wohl, a Trump backer at the website The Gateway Pundit, said in a tweet. The theme was picked up by Rush Limbaugh on his mass-market radio show. “It’s happening in October,” Limbaugh said darkly. “There’s a reason for this.”
Then quick police and FBI work used fingerprint and DNA evidence to reveal that the suspect was a fanatic Trump supporter named Cesar Sayoc. If central casting had invented an extremist inspired by Trump’s calls to violence, it could not have done better than Sayoc, whose van was festooned with Trump paraphernalia.
Trump stayed on a traditional script for a few minutes, and then resumed lashing out at the media. His ear was tin as far as the rest of America was concerned, but his remarks were the usual dog whistle to his base.
A day later, an even sicker anti-Semite went on an assault-weapon rampage at Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing eleven worshipers. Trump again briefly stayed on message, condemning the act, but then blamed the victims for not having hired an armed guard.
“This is a case where if they had an armed guard inside, they might have been able to stop it immediately,” he said. “Maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him, frankly. It’s a very, very, very difficult situation, and when you look at it, you can look at it two ways.”
Sorry, Mr. President, but there are not two ways to look at a mass murder in a synagogue. This was exactly the kind of callous rhetoric that caused public support for Trump to tank after his “good people on both sides” remark in the wake of last year’s deadly gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump has been oscillating between carefully scripted words of consolation and the slashing attacks so cherished by extremists. If he goes to Pittsburgh, that will only underscore his toxic role, since he will be utterly incapable of staying on script.
Here is an awkward but urgent question. Will the grotesque violence incited by Trumpism and his own appalling remarks hurt Republican congressional incumbents and candidates who slavishly vote with Trump? Or will they be permitted to step delicately around the escalating violence?
Candidates should not be allowed to get away with the usual thoughts-and-prayers blather. Trump has incited the violent fringe to not just make threats, but to commit acts.
There is a pattern here, and it ran from the 2015 massacre of black worshipers in Charleston, South Carolina, to the deadly riot by neo-fascists in Charlottesville, to the rampage against Jews at their synagogue in Pittsburgh and a thousand other hateful episodes that did not end in murder ― yet.
Last week, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who may be the next speaker if Republicans hold the House, posted and then deleted a tweet declaring, “Don’t let Soros, Bloomberg, and Steyer BUY this election!” All three Democratic donors just happen to be Jews.
Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum got the needed language just right when he said in a debate with his dog-whistling opponent, Republican Ron DeSantis, “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I’m simply saying that the racists believe he’s a racist.”
By the same token, those inclined to violence believe, on good evidence, that Trump is egging them on. For Republican House and Senate candidates, Trumpism is not a kind of political cafeteria where you can take the tax cuts and the deregulation, but pass up the incitement to violence.
Another Democrat who struck just the right note was Tom Malinowski, who is running for a congressional seat in New Jersey. “These words are like sparks to the gasoline of disturbed minds,” he said. “These words can kill.”
Conservatives don’t want the blood loosed by Trump on their hands, but it won’t wash off so easily. He who hoped to live by nationalizing the election could perish by having nationalized it.
As long as Trump’s incitement is a dog-whistle game, it plays to his advantage. But when his vilification of critics chimes with actual attempted bombings, when haters murder worshipers, Trump and his apologists have a much harder time playing dumb.
The midterm will be decided not only by who does a more effective job of mobilizing the base — Trump or the progressive coalition working to elect Democrats. It will also be decided by swing voters, political moderates who should be disgusted by so much that Trump represents, from concentration camps for immigrant toddlers to his winking at violent haters.
Which way the voters break in just over a week will tell us just what sort of a people we are.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? Follow him on Twitter at @rkuttnerwrites.