A Trumpian tinderbox Hate and the midterms
After some of the ugliest events of the Trump-era, Americans are hitting polls for a noxious midterm vote
Maureen Osiecki remembers the shock of Donald Trump narrowly winning her home state, Michigan, on his march to the White House. “My heart died,” she says of that night nearly two years ago. “My father turned over in his grave.”
On 6 November Osiecki gets her first chance to formally pass judgment on the Trump presidency. The midterm elections will decide control of Congress and could deliver the commander-in-chief a rebuke. Few can remember midterms taking place in a US so perilously divided – underlined last week by the 14 pipe bomb packages sent to leading Democrats and the 11 people shot dead in a Pittsburgh synagogue – or with a president so actively stoking the culture wars as a deliberate electoral strategy.
“He’s a pig,” said Osiecki, a 76-yearold retiree from a city planning department, sitting with friends in a Wendy’s restaurant in Pontiac, Michigan. “No feeling, no empathy. My father was a Republican but we got along.”
Across the road at a Taco Bell restaurant, Linda Andrews, 66, took a diametrically opposite view. “I like he tells us what he’s thinking,” she said. “His tweeting might not be politically correct but the politically correct people weren’t doing a dang thing. He’s done what he said he was going to do so he’s a man of his word. We tried the sweet talking and it didn’t work.”
Andrews, an army veteran and retired nurse who will vote Republican on 6 November, added: “Trump is like a surgeon. You might not like the bedside manner but he fixes what’s ailing you.”
The midterms, which early voting indicates could have their highest turnout in decades, are always a measure of the sitting president’s popularity, but Trump has put himself front and centre through rally after rally. “I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket, because this is also a referendum about me,” he told supporters in Southaven, Mississippi. “I want you to vote. Pretend I’m on the ballot.”
Whereas his predecessors have sought to unify, he has embraced the politics of polarisation in the hope of firing up his base. The midterms will provide the first official measure of whether the sum of love for Trump is exceeded by the sum of hatred.
Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report newsletter, told an audience at the Washington Post: “The best way to think about where we are today is that we’re having elections in two different Americas.” She noted that many of the Senate seats being contested are in Trump country – Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, West Virginia, Tennessee, Texas – which probably means that Republicans will retain and perhaps even expand control of that chamber. But in suburban America –the suburbs of Chicago, Denver, Dallas, northern Virginia, for example – and especially among white collegeeducated women, the president is deeply unpopular, suggesting that Democrats are set to gain a majority in the House of Representatives.
“So it feels more and more like we’re going to end up with an election night where everybody gets something they want,” Walter said. “It’s like a soccer game – everybody gets a trophy, everybody wins – but where the country remains as polarised and divided today as it was the day after the 2016 election.
“There’s going to be a big chunk of Americans who say, ‘We like where the country is going, we like the president, we’re going to support him’, and they will have their victories, and a whole part of the country that says, ‘We don’t like the president, we don’t like what he stands for’, and those victories will take place in the House. So you have a House that’s blue and a Senate that gets maybe a little more red, or at least stays red.”
The blue versus red tribalism predates Trump. In his book The Red and the Blue, Steve Kornacki traces it to the showdowns between the Democratic president Bill Clinton and Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. Gingrich and Republican insurgent Pat Buchanan were crucial in putting abortion rights at the centre of the “culture wars” that weaponise
issues such as drug use, gun rights, homosexuality and immigration.
Former president Barack Obama said in September: “It did not start with Donald Trump. He is a symptom, not the cause. He’s just capitalising on resentments that politicians have been fanning for years.”
But as the midterms approach, Trump has been capitalising as only he can, intensifying the attacks, while setting Americans at each others’ throats. “This will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense,” he said at a campaign rally in Montana.
These are all issues Trump would rather talk about than healthcare or social security. The recent battle over his supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, accused of sexual assault when a teenager, was acrimonious even by current standards of partisanship. Trump and senators such as Lindsey Graham bludgeoned his confirmation through despite the pleas of female protesters who staged sit-ins and were arrested at the US Capitol. Republicans have sought to brand them an angry leftwing mob in the hope it will animate the largely white male base to get out to the polls.
Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant and pollster, said: “Kavanaugh did not play well for the Democrats. For three nights the picture was all about the outrage, the yelling and screaming, in the chamber and the gallery. I think what Americans saw frightened them. It communicated that a Democratic majority would be just more chaos.”
The caravan of about 4,000 to 5,000 people, mainly from Honduras, that is travelling through southern Mexico still has a long way to travel to reach the US border. Such caravans have taken place regularly over the years, passing mostly unnoticed. But this is election season and the president is a self-declared “nationalist”.
Exploiting fears about the caravan and illegal immigration, Trump tweeted that “criminals” and “unknown Middle Easterners” are mixed in the group, only to later acknowledge that he has no proof. The pro-Trump Fox News network has been following their progress with morbid fascination. Gingrich in particular has made it a personal obsession.
Charlie Sykes, a conservative commentator and author of How the Right Lost Its Mind, said: “Political violence is always a possibility and always beneath the surface. Trump’s rhetoric can really bring out some dark impulses. The president is uniquely positioned to unite us and uniquely positioned to divide us.”
The point was brought home in a way that no one expected. Packages containing explosive devices were addressed to prominent Democrats and other targets of Trump’s vitriol last week, including Obama, former vice-president Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and the cable network CNN. Last Friday, justice department officials announced five charges against Cesar Sayoc, 56, from Florida, an amateur bodybuilder, ex-stripper and “partisan”, whose van was plastered with Trump’s image and whose social media accounts trafficked in far-right conspiracy theories.
The crude attempt to wipe out the leadership of a major political party was a moment of truth for the president. Instead of offering reassurance to those targeted, he used it to threaten the US media for political gain. “A very big part of the Anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News,” he tweeted. “It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream Media must clean up its act, FAST!”
It is unclear what impact the pipe bombs will have on the midterms, but Trump has set the tone for at least some of the contests. Andrew Gillum, an African-American candidate for governor of Florida, was targeted by a robocall that says in a demeaning minstrel accent: “Well, hello there. I is the Negro Andrew Gillum and I’ll be askin’ you to make me governor of this here state of Florida.” His Republican opponent, Ron DeSantis, previously urged voters not to “monkey this up”.
Gillum said in a debate: “I’m not calling Mr DeSantis a racist – I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”
All that – alongside Saturday night’s anti-semitic killing of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh – suggests that the US is a tinderbox and its president is like a child playing with matches. At last voters will soon have an opportunity to impose some sort of check on his power. Should Democrats take both the House and the Senate, they will have the power to impeach Trump and turf him out of office. But a divided government is more likely in this divided nation, enabling the president to take credit for his party’s wins and blame others for their defeats, teeing up an even more noxious contest for the White House in 2020. DAVID SMITH IS THE GUARDIAN’S WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF
‘It did not start with Trump; he’s a symptom, not the cause’
▲Donald Trump campaigning in Illinois last Saturday
▼The exterior of pipe bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc’s van
▼Police tape surrounds the Tree of Life synagogue