Trump appealed to the very worst in America. Too often, it worked. | Will Bunch
The president's appeal to racism and fear leads to early GOP gains in the Senate.
For all the people who spent much of the last two years saying, "America is better than that …"
Apparently, it's not.
For two months, President Trump pulled out everything in his bag of tricks to excite the rabid base of overwhelmingly white voters who shocked the world by delivering him the White House in 2016. With no easy way to tamp Democratic excitement for rendering a harsh verdict on Trump's character, the president made a mission of getting Republican voters every bit as worked up.
Criss-crossing the nation on Air Force One and landing in "flyover country" for as many as two and sometimes three rallies a day, Trump more than doubled his rate of lying during the run-up to the 2018 midterms – according to fact checkers – and "toned it up" to make blatant, fear-mongering appeals on race by describing a caravan of Central American migrants as an "invasion" and warning of a "Democratic mob" on the loose.
It was ugly, and while it boosted voter turnout to near-record levels, to many observers it was a campaign that repudiated the values that so many Americans have cherished for so long.
And as the results trickled in on Election Night, it looked as if the presidential scare tactics may have worked.
The Senate – which had been a major focus of Trump's efforts, with so many contested races in red states that the president won in 2016 – looked all but certain to remain in GOP hands after a Democratic incumbent, Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, lost narrowly to a GOP challenger, Mike Braun. That means right-wingers will have two more years to pack the federal judiciary with conservatives, and possibly even add another Supreme Court justice or two.
In the House, the Democrats did gain some seats in the Philadelphia suburbs, in northern Virginia, and in a heavily Hispanic district in South Florida, and as a long Election Night dragged on, NBC declared that Democrats had flipped the lower chamber. That will mark a major change – Democrats would gain committee chairs and new power to investigate the Trump White House – but the margin will not be large, and will no doubt feed Trump's ambition to run against "Democratic mobs" in 2020.
Still, the results seemed a more positive outcome for Republicans than seemed possible two months ago, when polls showed that Democrats – who formed a so-called Resistance to Trump in the early days of his presidency and turned out millions for a Women's March in opposition to his policies – were more enthusiastic about the 2018 election. Democratic consultant James Carville said on MSNBC that the Democratic gains weren't enough to be considered "a wave."
After the heated confirmation fight over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh – in which Trump and other Republicans rallied the base behind calls that Kavanaugh had been treated unfairly with allegations of youthful sexual assault – and Trump's fear-mongering on immigration, polls showed GOP voters were nearly as enthusiastic as Democrats. And that was very good news for the GOP, whose older base more reliably votes in midterms.
Although Trump was happy to frame the midterms as a referendum on his rule, in many ways the election was a gut check on the national character, at a moment when many both here and abroad fear America is sliding into authoritarianism.
And the results were not good.
Typical of the appeal to voters by Trump was a commercial that aired during TV's highest-rated program, NBC's Sunday Night Football, but that was ultimately rejected by NBC as well as CNN and even the overly Trump-friendly Fox News as racist. The commercial attempted to scare voters about the caravan of Central Americans slowly wending north through Mexico and falsely accused Democrats of letting an immigrant cop killer into the U.S. (even though he arrived during the GOP presidency of George W. Bush).
Trump's ugly rhetoric was adopted by many high-profile GOP candidates like Tennessee Senate hopeful Marsha Blackburn, who ran a TV ad that claimed, without evidence, that the caravan contained "gang members, known criminals, people from the Middle East, possibly even terrorists." Blackburn trounced Democratic ex-Gov. Phil Bredesen on Tuesday, despite his enthusiastic backing from Taylor Swift aimed at rallying young voters. It won't be easy to shake that off.
In Florida, a Trump acolyte, former Rep. Ron DeSantis, committed what many considered a fatal faux pas when he said voters shouldn't "monkey it up" with Democrat Andrew Gillum, seeking to become the state's first black governor, and he was dinged for past support from white supremacists. "I'm not saying Mr. DeSantis is a racist," Gillum said famously. "I'm simply saying that the racists believe he is racist."
On Tuesday, the man the racists believe is a racist appeared on his way to a narrow victory over Gillum. So America wasn't better than that.
Trump is Trump. He's terrible and he won't get better. But after Tuesday's results, maybe it's time to look less at Trump and more deeply into America's soul. Dishonest appeals to racism, xenophobia, and misogyny only work when millions of voters are receptive to hearing them.
The millions who resisted Trump – who marched in the streets on the day after his inauguration and called and faxed their representatives and who spent the fall knocking on doors and running phone banks – had been hoping for a better result. The midterms were their best chance to derail the Trump train. They slowed it down. But was it enough?
Anyone who's worried about a quickening plunge into autocracy has two years to figure out a better answer. The clock just started ticking.