The Arizona Republic
This election isn’t only about Trump
Donald Trump wants American politics to be all about him, all the time.
The rest of us shouldn’t be so quick to accede to his desire.
Now, Trump does have an undeniably oversized role in American politics, for several reasons.
He is president, and the president always commands significantly greater attention, and exercises greater influence, than any other political figure.
Then there is the way Trump plays politics. He routinely says outlandish things that are impossible to ignore.
And finally there is the reaction Trump engenders.
He outrages and energizes liberal activists. And that is understandable. They are steeped in
a politically correct way of seeing the world and behaving in politics. Trump brazenly and contemptuously violates every norm of political correctness. Trump is anti-matter to their politics.
Trump, in part because of that, animates and energizes his core base — which overlaps, but is not fully congruent with, the traditional Republican base. Trump looks down on those who looks down on them. And they love it.
Trump, while not deep on policy, has a sort of genius about appealing and activating this base in a way that renders conventional polling somewhat anachronistic. My guess is that a large segment of Trump base voters refuses to talk to pollsters as a matter of principle.
Trump’s formulation about the midterm election and the prospect of Democrats taking over one or both chambers of Congress – don’t give power to an angry mob – will probably increase turnout for Republicans by at least 1 or 2 percentage points.
Now, Trump violates norms other than just politically correct ones. He is a one-trick pony. The only political argument he is capable of wielding is a personal attack. He can’t even engage constructively with his own staff and cabinet. He is chronically uncivil and an unsettlingly erratic leader.
Trump is a riveting and deeply polarizing figure. But this election isn’t all about him. And treating it as such leads to misanalysis, misunderstanding and miscalculation.
For example, there is a common practice of calculating what percentage of the time a Republican senator or congressional representative voted the way Trump wanted. If the percentage is high, then the charge is made that the Republican office-holder is a rubber stamp for Trump and should be held accountable for all of Trump’s sins.
Trump, however, has governed in a highly conservative way: tax cuts, deregulation, conservative judges.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that conservative Republicans in Congress voted in favor of these things. That’s not being a rubber stamp for Trump. In fact, most Republicans members of Congress were in favor of these things well before Trump was.
Trickier territory is how Republican office-holders respond to Trump’s behavior, particularly his outlandish, erratic and offensive statements.
Most Republicans have condemned or distanced themselves from some statements. But, for the most part, they hold their tongues.
This is in part from personal political calculation. Republican voters want someone who supports Trump. And politicians don’t win election by alienating their base.
It is also from a policy political calculation. Trump is president. Conservative reforms have to go through him. In fact, as a practical matter, they have to be initiated by him.
Trump is tribal. Getting things done requires working with him. And tut-tutting him all the time wouldn’t be conducive to that.
Trump motivates liberals to get out to vote in larger than usual numbers.
There are also voters who don’t necessarily want liberal governance, but are offended by Trump. They are inclined to vote Democrat to hold Trump in check.
This is making the election all about Trump. And this tactical vote may not be fully thought out.
This election, a vote for Democrats may very well be a vote to put the country through the trauma of an impeachment proceeding. Is that really better than trying to vote Trump out of office in two years, or hope that he doesn’t run again?
This election should be about what elections should always be about: choosing the office-holder whom voters think will support the policies that best serve the country and the state.
Trump is naturally a factor. But he shouldn’t be the only factor.