We have seen this movie before: A Republican, sensing that an election is slipping from his grasp, closes with an ugly finishing kick of fearmongering and racialist demagoguery.
Indeed, we saw this movie last year, in Virginia's gubernatorial race. In its final weeks, Ed Gillespie, formerly a nondescript establishment Republican turned lobbyist, began lobbing grenades at Democratic opponent Ralph Northam. Gone was Gillespie's 15-point action plan; in its place were ads stoking fear of Hispanic gangs, nonexistent sanctuary cities, and politically correct liberals intent on erasing our "great statues/heritage."
The gambit did not suit Gillespie. He lost badly in a race that was expected to be close.
President Trump is exhibiting similar behavior in his demagoguery. But we do not always smell the same stench of desperation from Trump, as he rails about Democratic "mobs," marauding immigrants, and "unknown Middle Easterners." Why? Because such demagoguery suits him all too well. And, such is his (and his phantasmagoric rural diner-dwelling base's) power over our national psyche, we are scared out of our wits that, once again, Trump will appeal to our worst instincts and be rewarded with virtually untrammeled power.
Hence David Leonhardt asking, with existential distress, "What if Republicans win everything again?":
It would be validation for Trump, who could then brag that he had defied the experts once again. It would mean he had outperformed Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, and Harry Truman, all of whom suffered drubbings in the first midterm election of their presidency. It would embolden Trump to push even harder toward the America he wants — where corporate oversight is scant, climate change is ignored, voting rights are abridged, health care is a privilege, judicial independence is a fiction, and the truth is whatever he says it is. [David Leonhardt, The New York Times]
So what are Democrats doing to combat Trump's last-minute appeal to demagoguery? Well, not much, if you listen to some critics.
Here's David Brooks challenging Democrats to be more like, well, David Brooks: Stop making promises about material things and instead chase after my politico-mystical will-o'-the-wisp!
[T]he Democratic campaign is inadequate to the current moment. It offers no counternarrative to Trump, little moral case against his behavior, no unifying argument against ethnic nationalism. In politics you can't beat something with nothing. Democrats missed the Trumpian upsurge because while society was dividing into cultural tribes, they spent 2008 through 2016 focusing on health care. Now that the upsurge has happened, they are still pinioned to health care. [David Brooks, The New York Times]
There are times when I, too, succumb to this sort of dystopian doomthink. But I don't discern confidence in Trump's latest anti-immigrant bombast. He and embattled GOP House incumbents have resorted to the tactic of fearmongering because it's the last available option in the playbook. For the better part of this year, and certainly since the public-relations disaster that was his administration's family-separation policy at the southern border, Trump has trumpeted favorable economic indicators like quarterly GDP growth and low unemployment as well as his accomplishments (relatively speaking) abroad, on trade and NATO.
There is no doubt that the GOP would be sticking to this message of uplift if they thought it would close the deal in November. But, given the surge in Democratic enthusiasm the past two years, they realize it does not. So our attention is turned, again, to migrants at the border. And, oh, let's not forget the other source of desperation stench. In a stark contrast to the 2014 midterms, when they captured the Senate, Republicans are mendaciously running toward ObamaCare (or least that portion of it that is increasingly popular with the public).
Swinging back to Virginia: I don't bring up the state's gubernatorial race because I think it's a perfect national bellwether; data journalist Harry Enten cautioned us that, historically, it hasn't been: "The average difference between Democrats' over- or underperformance in Virginia and the following national House vote has been 7 percentage points. That's a pretty big miss — and just a few points could make or break the Democrats' shot at a House majority." My bet is that it will be closer this year, and for this reason: The battle for the House will take place in districts that look a lot more like Northern Virginia (which delivered Gov. Northam his resounding win) than they do North Dakota or Missouri. (See this CityLab demographic anaylsis by David Montgomery and Richard Florida to see what I mean.)
Trump's latest excrescences may net his party a pickup or two in Senate races in ruby-red states. But such a victory will prove pyrrhic, as the GOP loses one piece of its countermajoritarian hammerlock. Trump surely knows a loss is imminent — and is wildly lashing out to try and prevent it.