A midterm election like no other
President Trump is pushing all his chips into the middle of the table.
Advisors may be telling him to tone it down following the arrest of a Trump supporter for sending pipe bombs to politicians, civic leaders and entertainers — including two former presidents — who are all popular targets for the president’s brand of taunting, acerbic criticism.
And certainly, it's not the time to push a nationalistic agenda after a white supremacist shot and killed 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue and wounded several officers who responded.
Conventional wisdom says a president picks his spots in a midterm election, dropping in to campaign in a few strategic races where the calculus suggests that support will be helpful, but avoiding owning the results and being careful not to show up where it could be counterproductive.
Trump is having none of it.
The president is holding as many as a dozen rallies across the country in the lead up to the election. With power of will and an us-against-them urgency he seeks to overcome the historical pattern of presidents losing congressional seats in their first midterm election.
Trump’s method to fire up his base is fear. Fear that a few thousand Central American migrants moving slowly through Mexico, but still hundreds of miles away, pose a national security threat. Fear that Democrats, if allowed to control Congress, will block his efforts to make America great again and open the borders to change the very nature of our country.
It is unabashedly xenophobic and Trump is convinced it works to win elections.
The commander in chief is dispatching thousands of military troops to the U.S.-Mexican border, contending the number could reach 15,000, which would exceed our military footprint n Afghanistan. On Thursday he said the troops should be prepared to fire on civilians armed only with rocks.
"I told them: Consider it a rifle," said Trump during a White House speech.
Trump's war-footing stance followed his earlier statement that he planned to sign an executive order ending birthright citizenship for children who are born in this country but whose parents entered unlawfully. Such an order would appear to ignore the clear language of the Fourteenth Amendment, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” And what would happen to the millions of citizens whose parents arrived illegally? Would they become non-citizens with the stroke of the presidential pen?
Oh, and he promised a 10 percent tax cut for the middle class, though that out-of-nowhere vow faded quickly from Trump’s stump speech.
Trump won the presidency by promising the impossible — remember he had a health plan to replace Obamacare that was far superior and he would build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it — and by sowing division. It worked then and it will work now to retain Republican control of Congress, about that Trump appears convinced. History and conceit have persuaded Trump that when he takes his own counsel things go well and when he listens to others they do not.
Imagine if he is right. Imagine if Trump again defies the polls and political gravity and the Republicans retain control of the House of Representatives (which the polls indicate is unlikely) and the Senate (already a promising prospect for Republicans.)
At that point Trump, his ego further inflated and the self-belief in his political genius confirmed, will have no limits. He will own Congress. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein will be dispatched and replaced. Special Counsel Robert Mueller will be effectively silenced and the results of his investigation stillborn.
Has there ever been a midterm election more important?
It is frightening to fathom how far a further emboldened Trump will push constitutional boundaries. And what would stop him? It is not likely to be a Republican Congress that Trump dragged into office with his politics of division. And how much confidence can the public have in a federal court system and U.S. Supreme Court filled with Republican-backed appointees.
Many, including Republicans, are saying it is nonsense to suggest that Trump could use an executive order to redefine birthright citizenship. But the Constitution says what the Supreme Court decides it says. No case has ever specifically tested the citizenship issue concerning the children of illegal immigrant parents.
As for the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech, the high court has ruled it prohibits placing any constraints on the ability of corporations to spend millions of dollars trying to influence elections. Trump has no problem with it protecting fair and balanced reporting. But does it protect “enemies of the people,” so-called journalists who seek to undermine the president? An emboldened Trump may try to find out.
I have little doubt that Connecticut will do its part to check Trump, sending five Democratic congressmen and two Democratic senators to Washington. But what will voters in other states do? Most troubling, millions will again sit out the election.
This midterm election and the future course of the Republic come down to this: Voters will either rebuke Trump’s tactics or affirm them. We all find out in a couple of days.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.
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