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

The Guardian Weekly - - Front Page - By David Smith WASH­ING­TON

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’

NI­CHOLAS KAMM/GETTY

▲Don­ald Trump cam­paign­ing in Illi­nois last Satur­day

PAUL BILODEAU/REX

▼The ex­te­rior of pipe bomb sus­pect Ce­sar Sayoc’s van

BREN­DAN SMIALOWSKI AFP/GETTY

▼Po­lice tape sur­rounds the Tree of Life syn­a­gogue

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