WASHINGTON. The just-concluded 2018 mid-term elections were, in no small measure, a referendum on President Donald Trump and his first two years in office. The president himself repeatedly told voters to consider that his name was on the ballot. Unfortunately for both the President and the GOP, however, this election’s now mostly-final results scarcely resemble what Trump is now calling “a great victory.”
Prying “a great victory” from the jaws of defeat
The fact that Democrats have regained control of the House, defeating Republicans in several gubernatorial races as well, indicates that the campaign Mr. Trump conducted was far from a “great victory.” This election’s near-final results should offer the President an opportunity to learn that headlining a series of raucous rallies, insulting and belittling those he opposed, and spinning a variety of conspiracy theories with little basis in fact is not the way to win elections today.
But even though the GOP’s one-party reign over the Federal government has now come to an end, President Trump boldly insisted that the election results were indeed “a great victory.”
His relationship with reality seems open to serious question.
It is noteworthy that little in the President’s Election 2018 campaign crusade could be considered truly conservative. As a result, conservatism was not defeated. It was never on the Trump agenda. But somehow, many who call themselves conservatives seem not to have noticed this simple fact.
The demographics, they are a-changin’
The demographics of this country are changing. The subgroups of voters that are currently increasing in number — young people, suburbanites, minorities, the well-educated — voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats. Those inarguably declining demographics — less educated working class and rural white voters — were the ones that voted Republican.
The Election 2018 numbers indicate that unless Republicans change their approach and separate themselves from the divisiveness promoted in this campaign, their prospects in future elections don’t look very good. Barely winning a Senate seat in Texas is not a “great victory.” Neither is GOP candidate Brian Kemp’s current, paper-thin lead in the Georgia gubernatorial race.
Although the country is at peace, the economy is doing well, and jobs are increasing, President infrequently emphasized these historic gains. This could understandably be regarded by most as a genuine “great victory.” But no. Instead, the President chose to sow fear and divisiveness on the campaign trail.
Moderate Republicans were displeased with his campaign approach. But they largely kept this to themselves, acquiescing to a campaign they knew was bad for both their party and the country.
Moral leadership was utterly absent in this election cycle
For years, President Trump promoted the false story that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. That seems to have set an unhelpful pattern that the President has yet to outgrow.
Consider the arguments the president set forth, and which Republicans either supported or ignored.
For example, the president repeatedly charged that 88-year old George Soros, the liberal billionaire, and Holocaust survivor, was funding the migrant caravan making its way from Central America toward the United States. Interestingly, Cesar Sayoc, the Florida man accused of mailing more than a dozen bombs to those who have been the subject of the President’s attacks, included Soros on his list.
It has been clear for many years that organizations funded by the Soros organization have been spending significant sums of money to promote Democrats and Democrat-supported issues in a succession of American elections. But the current Soros-caravan conspiracy theory, to which the President also links prominent Democrats, lacks hard evidence to support it. Yet it does follow a consistent, conservative story arc, linking together a fear of mass immigration with the specter of powerful foreign agents controlling major world events in pursuit of a hidden agenda.
Conspiracy Theories: Truth, or Consequences?
Professor Joseph Uscinski, of the University of Miami, co-author of American Conspiracy Theories, says
“I don’t know if the whole country is becoming unhinged. Part of the problem is we have a president who.pushes conspiracy theories, and he put together a coalition of conspiracy-minded Republicans to support him. During the campaign, he was spewing conspiracy theories constantly, whether it was the birther thing, or Ted Cruz’s dad killed JFK. If you, put Donald Trump’s campaign into perspective, he was talking about trade deals and immigration all the time because that’s something Americans historically are conspiracy-theorizing about.”
Particularly tricky for Republican prospects was the fact that the president regularly says so many things that are not true. In recent weeks, he has spoken of riots that did not happen. He claimed the U.S. was the only country with birthright citizenship. (Sources estimate there are some thirty others.) He has asserted that construction has begun on his border wall with Mexico. With funding constrained by Congress, construction of small segments of this potentially vast project is scarcely underway.
Trump boasts, without convincing evidence, that he is one of the most popular presidents in history. Trump claims he “always” opposed the Iraq war. But he did not always oppose it. He said that the stock market opened the day after the 9/11 attacks. It did not.
Trump said that the GOP tax cut he promoted was the largest in history. It was not. He claims Democrats opposed opioid legislation when, in fact, they convincingly voted in favor of it.
An Artful Dodger?
Even some of Trump’s staunchest supporters acknowledge that this campaign has brought a torrent of untruths that detract from a record which he should have spent his time promoting. “If you want me to say he’s a liar, I’m happy to say he’s a liar,” said Anthony Scaramucci, who served an abbreviated stint as White House communications director. Appearing on CNN, he offered this advice to the president:
“You should probably dial down the lying because you don’t need to do it. You’re doing a great job for the country.”
In a widely promoted political advertisement sponsored by Republicans, a Mexican man who killed two police officers is the centerpiece. The ad declares: “Democrats let him into our country. Democrats let him stay.”
But the killer came to the U.S. during the presidency of George W. Bush. Even Fox News refused to air this false, racially tinged political message.
Fact or Fancy?
The President’s political rallies, designed to mobilize support, have been filled with repeated declarations that were false. Eighty times he has asserted that the U.S. economy may be the best in history.
In many ways this is the greatest economy in the HISTORY of America and the best time EVER to look for a job!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2018
He also claims some seventy-four times that his border wall is being built. However, it is being built very slowly notes NRO (The Wall Is Being Built! [Slowly.]).
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump denied that he had imposed many tariffs.
“I mean, other than some tariffs on steel, which is actually small, what do we have?…Where do we have tariffs? We don’t have tariffs anywhere.”
The newspaper responded by printing a list of $305 billion in tariffs the administration has imposed on many types of U.S. imports.
Language as an incendiary device
Beyond the president’s embrace of conspiracy theories and repeated misstatements of fact is his customarily incendiary language. He repeatedly calls his political opponents “evil” and “enemies of the people.”
Perhaps encouraged by this, acts of hatred have been growing. A possible example is the killing of eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, at least according to some individuals.
A problem in Pittsburgh
Many observers, including Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh, believe the president’s rhetoric played a part in creating an atmosphere in which such acts are possible.
Among them is Daniel Benjamin. A former coordinator for counter-terrorism at the State Department, he is now director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. He argues that two major developments appear to be driving the rise in acts of hatred.
“The first is the creation of an extremist community online. Both Robert Bowers, the suspected Pittsburgh shooter and Cesar Sayoc, Jr., who is believed to be responsible for mailing 14 pipe bombs to high profile Trump critics and CNN were netizens. The online world gave these two a home. The second development that has lit up this increasingly linked and animated world is Trump. The statistics demonstrate clearly that the biggest bump in hate crimes in recent history coincides with the period since his presidential campaign began. This is not just a matter of correlation. Trump’s incendiary rhetoric has given license to those who, peddle hatred to emerge from the shadows. Sayoc and Bowers seem clearly unhinged, barely functioning and susceptible to any utterance from the Commander in Chief.”
Left unsaid in such criticisms, however, is the fact that the President’s daughter, Ivanka, is a convert to Judaism. More significantly, she is raising her grandchildren, and thus, the President’s, as Jews. Benjamin and others also ignore the President’s strong support for Israel and his relocation of the U.S. Embassy there to Jerusalem – a promise made and routinely ignored for decades by successive administrations of both parties.
Even so, the President’s strident rhetoric is still far from helpful. This is particularly true when it comes to the many ethnic and social flashpoints that drive the political conversation in the 21st century. It does not hold the key to a great victory now or in the future.
Whatever happened to the old, reliable GOP?
The Republican Party has a long and honorable history. It notably began with the genuinely great victory of Abraham Lincoln who faithfully kept the then-embryonic GOP’s commitment to preserve the Union and end slavery. It has supported many distinguished leaders since that time. Whether or not one agrees with their policy positions, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, George H.W Bush, Gerald Ford, and many others were indeed honorable men.
They respected their political opponents and in turn were respected by them as well.
For these and other GOP leaders, the kind of rhetoric we have heard from the current White House, the almost daily insults and name-calling would have been inconceivable.
Also inconceivable is the manner in which Republicans in Congress, beginning with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, have permitted this excess to continue. In so doing, they have participated in this 2018 campaign filled with conspiracy theories, lies and incendiary rhetoric. A party with moral and ethical standards would not have permitted any of this.
With a handful, of exceptions, today’s Republicans seem willing to abandon all rules if there is something to gain as a result. Today, we now know that there was nothing to gain, but everything to lose, with this stance. It robbed the GOP of what might have been a highly significant “great victory.”
What this country needs
Our country desperately needs a center-right party. Such a party would respect our constitutional division of power. It would be suspicious of an all-powerful executive. In addition, it would believe in limited government, fiscal responsibility, national strength, free trade, all while respecting social diversity.
After this midterm election, however, it is far from clear that the Republican Party as currently constituted can fulfill that role. The GOP, 2018 Edition, has apparently been willing to abandon all these things to embrace a cult of personality. Arguably, that cult is what led to the GOP defeats now unfolding.
What the future holds for this nation’s political life is unclear. What is clear, however, is that we deserve something better than this.
— Headline image: Election 2018: Popped balloon for the GOP? (Free photo via https://www.freeimages.com/photo/popped-balloon-3-1549315)