Trump’s Midterms Strategy Is Fear, Lies, and (White) Nationalism

Trump’s Midterms Strategy Is Fear, Lies, and (White) Nationalism

Trump’s Midterms Strategy Is Fear, Lies, and (White) Nationalism

And that’s what works to turn out his base.


Pay no attention to the fearmongering about 7,000 desperate Central Americans, many of them children and old people, walking in 90-degree heat to seek asylum in the United States. They’re not the “caravan” to worry about—that would instead be the caravan of lies delivered in the last few days by President Trump.

Trump is lying so much and so blatantly that even major newspapers and cable stations (besides Fox) are actually beginning to call his false statements “lies.” On Tuesday morning a CNN chyron read: “Trump sells lies and stokes fears before election.” The Washington Post ran down the “fear and falsehoods” he’s peddling, chief among them this evidence-free claim about the members of the caravan: “You’re going to find MS-13, you’re going to find Middle Eastern, you’re going to find everything.” On Monday Trump challenged reporters to take cameras down to the caravan, and guess what—major news networks and papers already had reporters there, and they say they’ve seen no evidence of Middle Easterners or MS-13 members. But still he lies.

It seems we have a New Trump for the midterms, who is, shockingly, even more racist and mendacious than the Old Trump. On Monday night, he took a disturbing rhetorical turn and proclaimed himself a “nationalist.” At a rally for Ted Cruz (formerly known as “Lyin’ Ted,” now “Beautiful Ted”) in Houston, Trump told the crowd: “You know, they have a word. It sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say, ‘Really, we’re not supposed to use that word?’ You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK? I’m a nationalist.… Use that word.”

The Washington Post’s Robert Costa explained on Twitter why it mattered—and why Trump himself used to reject that word: “Trump used to wave me off in 2015-16 whenever I’d bring up the term ‘nationalism’ or ‘populism,’” he explained. “Trump’s aversion to ‘nationalism’ and ‘populism’ wasn’t an aversion to those *ideas* and what fueled them, but to the *people* associated w/ them. Identity-wise, he didn’t want to be seen as a [Steve] Bannonite, a [Pat] Buchananite, or part of a movement.”

Not any more. He may have been fired from the White House, but Steve Bannon has finally won.

Given Trump’s inflammatory, nonstop racism, we know when he talks about nationalism he means white nationalism. My friend John Judis has a new book out, The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration and the Revolt Against Globalization, which argues that nationalism is “an essential ingredient of political democracies” and a prerequisite of “the modern welfare state.” Unfortunately, we don’t have many examples of nationalism without racism—and we’re certainly not getting one from Trump.

White nationalists applauded Trump’s rhetorical turn, according to the folks at Right Wing Watch. Gab, the social media site that hosts white supremacists who are too toxic for Twitter, called Trump “stunning and brave” to “come out of the closet as an American Nationalist,” while the site’s CEO pronounced “the Overton Window is officially smashed.” Pizzagate fabulist Jack Posobiec, who used to pal around with white supremacists like Richard Spencer, announced on Twitter that he was “an American nationalist like President Trump.” Ann Coulter saw it as proof Trump was “sounding like Breitbart” again, just in time for the midterms.

Trump’s lies are certainly coming fast and furious—which reminds me of an earlier GOP Big Lie—as we get within two weeks of midterm elections in which Democrats are favored to at least take the House of Representatives (and with it, the power to subpoena Trump’s taxes and much much more). The white nationalist in chief is claiming that Democrats are behind the migrant caravan, because they hope to sneak its members into the country to vote illegally. He’s branded Democrats “too dangerous to govern,” and adopted the slogan #JobsNotMobs. A less blatant but invidious lie is his claim that the GOP will pass a middle-class tax cut before the election; Congress won’t be in session until afterward. Trump allies like Florida Representative Matt Gaetz have broadcast his claims that Democrats are funding the caravan, with Gaetz singling out liberal financier (and perennial Trump bogeyman) George Soros; an explosive device was left in the mailbox at one of Soros’s homes on Monday night.

And still, all of this isn’t enough for some Trump allies. Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser, told The Washington Post that the caravan is “a political gift,” adding, “I wish they were carrying heroin. I wish we had thought of it. It speaks to the dearth of our creativity, unfortunately.” When you think they can’t go any lower, think again.

Meanwhile, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is promising that Republicans will cut the budget deficit—exploded by Republican-passed tax cuts for the rich—by cutting Social Security and Medicare. McConnell vowed he would take another shot at repealing the Affordable Care Act. Also on Tuesday, the Trump administration issued regulations allowing subsidies for skimpier, shorter-term health-insurance plans that don’t cover a full range of illnesses. These “nationalists” are not building but dismantling the welfare state. Between Trump and McConnell, you’ve got the modern GOP in microcosm: oligarchy wrapped in white nationalism.

We’ve seen this show before—not just in the 2016 Trump campaign, but in the 2014 midterms, when the GOP rode a wave of fear about an Ebola outbreak, an ISIS resurgence, and a crisis of youth migrants to victory. We tried to laugh about it then, when they claimed Ebola-ridden undocumented immigrants were crossing the border—I imagined a trifecta of an Ebola-infected ISIS fighter crossing the Rio Grande—but it really wasn’t funny. Months of fearmongering led to another Republican wave in 2014, letting them capture the Senate and widen their lead in the House.

Polling and on-the-ground resistance organizing suggest to me that Democrats are in a much stronger position going into this year’s midterms. But the truth is, fear works on the right’s base, and Democrats should be afraid it will work this time around—and channel that fear into working to turn out the blue wave.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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