As the midterm elections near, Donald Trump and much of the Republican party are doubling down on the dystopian fear-mongering that has come to define them — and may in time define our country, if Americans don’t rise up at the polls next week and demand that it stop.
Over the past two years, we lived through many awful weeks, from equivocation on white supremacism in Charlottesville to the mocking of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. But recent days have seen some of the worst.
Eleven Jews were gunned down at Sabbath worship by a virulent anti-Semite; bombs were sent to the Clintons and Obamas, George Soros, Tom Steyer, CNN and others who are regular targets of lie-filled hateful rants from the President of the United States; and a Black couple in Louisville was killed by an avowed racist who went after them when he couldn’t get into a Black church.
Yet, as before, the President pauses only briefly for words of ritual condolence before returning to the default vitriol of his rallies and tweets.
A group of Central Americans making its way northward through Mexico to the U.S. border is to Trump not the cry of desperate families fleeing economic deprivation and violence, but a nefarious Democratic plot threatening national security — a prop for stoking his nativist base.
Transgendered persons are not fellow members of the human community to be embraced, supported, and given equal rights and protections under the law, but defined out of full personhood in proposed federal regulations.
A Member of Congress who assaults a reporter is celebrated by Trump as “my kind of guy,” assailing the press once again as an “enemy of the people,” while our government looks for every way to avoid condemning Saudi Arabia for the hit men who lured a journalist into their embassy and then killed and dismembered him.
This is not normal. It should never be accepted as normal. But it could become normal, depending on what happens at the polls on November 6.
We know that the sheer volume of despicable events and actions in the Trump White House would spell doom for any other politician or presidency. Yet by now we know it is simply the Trump playbook in action, constantly inciting what is now inarguably the “base” of a Republican Party remade in his image, provoking progressives, and numbing and demoralizing most people who are just trying to live their lives.
The most striking thing Donald Trump’s presidency is not that he is an ignorant, bigoted, mendacious, cruel, incompetent, and corrupt person — the evidence for that was on flagrant display throughout his public life and the campaign. It is that the Republican Party has proved utterly incapable of and clearly uninterested in restraining or condemning him in any meaningful way.
Anyone waiting to be saved by patriotic Republicans who care more about the country and its institutions, values, and best traditions than their political careers, is waiting in vain. There is only one remedy for our national plight: the election that is coming a week from today. A thorough repudiation of Trump and the Republicans at the polls would be, as conservative Trump critic Jennifer Rubin noted, nothing less than a “national cleansing.”
That may well come. Many are working fervently toward it, and there are encouraging signs, from thousands waiting to vote early in Texas to the unprecedented engagement by ordinary citizens in every aspect of electoral mobilization: calling, texting, and door-knocking. The last few years have been among the worst of times for our democracy, but we also saw the growth of vibrant, passionate social activism, with the Women’s March and #MeToo movements adding their voices to those that emerged earlier, like the Movement for Black Lives and the Dreamers. Many who were not previously active have found their voice and stepped into the public sphere.
There has been much speculation over the months about a wave election. But how intensely the waters flow on November 6 is in our hands, and the hands of all those, whatever their political philosophy or voting history, who choose to stand up for the humane and just country we have always aspired to be. It is absolutely critical — as even many principled conservatives have urged — that Democrats control at least one house of Congress. Without that we’ll have no chance for meaningful checks on Trump and his enablers, and no serious oversight of and accountability for the many transgressions of the last few years.
We cannot change Donald Trump. He will act according to the dictates of his wretched ego and character no matter what else happens. We can only change the response to him, and assure, in the Congress and in the crucially important domains of state houses around the country, that we step back from the frightening path we are on.
But what about policy issues, the things that are usually contested in elections, and that have divided progressives from a series of conservative Presidents and candidates, from Reagan to Romney, before Trump? There is nothing I care about, no progressive or even bipartisan achievement of my lifetime, that is not in dire peril from the Trump Administration and the Republican majorities in Congress. Health care, climate change treaties, human rights and environmental protections, the social safety net, a more inclusive economy, voting rights, reproductive freedom — all are at stake in the midterm elections, and all involve values as well as policies.
But more than ever before, what is at stake goes even much deeper than the clashes of philosophy and worldview that have characterized most of our elections in the last few particularly polarized decades. Our national character, and the fundamental norms that channel and express it, is on the line, because it has been tested by this rogue President and his supporters as never before.
In a number of states, if we work hard in the remaining days and if current predictions hold, we’ll have opportunities to rebuild protections for families, workers, women, voters, immigrants, minorities, LGBTQ people and others that have been rolled back in recent years as a red tide, intensified by gerrymandering, swept much of the country at the state level. Democrats seeking to take back power there and in Congress have understandably made kitchen table issues like health care the center of their campaigns because we believe in a politics of aspiration and opportunity that speaks to the daily lives of most Americans, not fear and hatred. The best campaigns — the ones that have inspired and excited millions well beyond the borders of the states they are running in like Stacy Abrams in Georgia, Andrew Gillum in Florida and Beto O’Rourke in Texas — are centered around hope and even joy.
But overall, as the final voting nears, a strong moral voice about what uniquely lies in the balance in this election is harder to find. In 2016 many faulted Hillary Clinton after her electoral college loss for focusing more on Trump’s manifest unfitness than on her plans to address those left behind in the economy. But let’s not overlearn that lesson.
Trump’s assaults on democracy, truth, law, and decency must play a more central role in the final great debates of this fiercely-waged campaign, and the results at the polls must make a clear statement about what kind of country we wish to live in. You can be sure that if November 6 goes well for Trump and the Republicans — if they keep the Congress, however narrowly, and our gains in the states are just incremental — both the transgressor and his enablers will be emboldened in ways we haven’t even imagined yet. Trump will see it as a validation of every outrageous act and utterance, and the Mitch McConnells of the world will see that there is no penalty to be paid for shredding the norms of democratic governance. Bigots and unhinged angry loners and thugs already dangerously aroused by this Presidency will take note.
An America that wakes up on November 7 to such a scene may not have missed its last chance to write a different story. But if that is what we are facing, things will surely get worse, and it may be some time, while we live in a country that is harder and harder to recognize, before the opportunity comes around again.