The midterm election is history, but the ongoing crisis that is Donald Trump's presidency is far from over. Having reprised the fear-mongering, race-baiting and deceit that propelled him to the Oval Office, Trump in 2018 showed he will continue to lie and deceive and disrupt. If you expected a reprieve from the chaos, forget about it.
A president like no other, whose personality is the subject of constant alarm, Trump has been reliably divisive and reckless since he began seeking the Oval Office. This consistency tells us to expect more of the same. If Trump was this bad in 2018 when his name wasn't on the ballot, what can we expect in 2020 when he's actually running for something?
Although Republicans lost the House of Representatives, the forecasted blue wave that washed them out of power was not a tsunami, and the President is likely to conclude that his days of rage on the campaign trail helped the GOP gain seats in the Senate. House Democrats may now be empowered to confront him, but Trump will almost certainly try to divide the country further with appeals to fear and tribalism.
In the final days of the campaign, Trump added extra energy to his usual arm-waving, rubber-faced wild man act as he raced around the country like a deranged rock star on a manic Appeal to Fear Concert Tour. Bigotry, fear-mongering and falsehoods were once again his go-to themes. He also shifted his attack on the free press, blaming journalists for the political violence he helped stoke with rage-filled rhetoric.
"You know, you're creating violence with your question," Trump told a reporter at the end of the campaign. With this classic example of Trump-speak, the President equated civil inquiry with incitements delivered by the most powerful person on Earth. He later undermined public confidence in the election by warning of voter fraud. It was a false alarm clearly intended to delegitimize the results.
Trump will be able to say that his anger and negativity worked well in Senate races in North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri, where GOP candidates ousted Democrats. But elsewhere even victorious Republicans, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, did not perform like the favorites they were. A regular president would find these outcomes sobering, but Trump is not a regular president. He could sift the results and conclude that with a little more demagoguery he might have done better.
Near the end of his barnstorming tour Trump told a crowd that news coverage of his visit to a Pittsburgh synagogue where 11 worshippers had been killed by a gunman presented a false picture of a mass protest that arose in the nearby streets. "They want to stoke resentment," said the President. "It has to stop," he said.
In blaming the press, Trump performed two of his favorite tricks. The first involved turning the truth inside out to deflect attention. The synagogue suspect's online postings show he was motivated by the kind of anti-immigrant hatred Trump has made central to his own political identity. Like Trump, he reportedly called asylum seekers "invaders." Trump's second trick in this case showed him applying a gross misinterpretation to a news event to make people afraid.
The synagogue killings occurred as the President's messages about a large group of asylum-seekers walking toward America from the south reached a hate-filled fevered pitch. With no evidence he suggested the walkers included criminals and terrorists and that billionaire philanthropist-investor George Soros funded their walk.
Soros is the Jewish boogeyman of right-wing fanatics, and his image is routinely evoked as a dog whistle to anti-Semites. The day before the synagogue massacre, Trump smiled when some visitors at the White House called out Soros' name, and he joined in when other chanted, "Lock him up!"
Falsehoods and distortions are Trump's hallmarks, and according to the fact-checkers at The Washington Post he has averaged 10 per day since getting elected. As the 2018 race heated up he tripled his average and on just one day, while campaigning in Texas for Cruz, he issued 83 false and misleading statements. Among the whoppers he issued again and again were claims that his 2017 tax cut was the biggest in history (it wasn't) and that the wall he promised to build on the border with Mexico is under construction (it's not).
Many are inclined to dismiss Trump's distortions as somehow spontaneous or unplanned; they are anything but. For example, his team had signs printed and distributed at his rallies, one of which read, "Finish the wall" -- reinforcing his claim that something was being built and need only be completed. In reality, some fences are being repaired and extended, but no new wall is being constructed along a boundary that stretches roughly 2,000 miles. However, the signs waved by his supporters and the chants of "Finish the wall!" set just the right conditions for people to catch the contagion of fear and rage. It was political theater out of the demagogue's handbook, and Trump plays it like a master.
If Trump were an ordinary president whose proposals were offered as serious notions, the status of the wall might matter. In fact, from the moment Trump first promised to build the wall it has been more a symbol of his worldview than a workable policy proposal. "The Wall" gave him a solid image to evoke as he stoked an irrational fear of undocumented immigrants. Although these undocumented immigrants are much more law-abiding overall than are American citizens, Trump cited violent crimes committed by some to spread fear and anger. Then he promised to humiliate Mexico by forcing it to pay for the construction. "I will build a great wall on our southern border" was his pitch in 2016, "and I'll have Mexico pay for it."
At the close of the 2018 campaign, Trump doubled down on this fear-mongering tactic with a TV ad focused on an undocumented immigrant who was convicted of killing police officers and threatened to kill more. Besides being inflammatory and racist in the view of CNN executives and others, the ad was based on false claims that Democrats were responsible for the killer in question coming into the United States. In fact, he was deported under President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and permitted back into the country by Clinton's Republican successor, President George W. Bush.
Although the ad was based on false claims, Trump's son Donald Jr. complained about "fake news" outlets (CNN, and later NBC and even Fox) refusing to broadcast it. As is his habit, the President continued to insult the mainstream press throughout the 2018 campaign to discredit any source of information that might contradict his claims.
Trump added a final racist tinge to his 2018 campaigning when he called Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum a "thief." His divisiveness on multiple fronts made it easy to see that Trump is playing the same game he has always played. His us-vs.-them message combined with scapegoating and histrionics are the essence of Trump. So too was his effort, in the end, to make the election a referendum on him as a personality.
Political analysts and historians will parse the midterm's outcome for years to come. These studies are not needed by anyone considering the coming two years in American politics.
As White House aides began to warn the President about potential midterms losses in the days before, Trump seemed to be open to the idea that his recklessly divisive behavior may be a problem. "I would like to have a much softer tone," he told a reporter. "I feel to a certain extent I have no choice. But maybe I do and maybe I could have been softer from that standpoint."
Missing from Trump's self-reflection is any acknowledgment that he had many opportunities to demonstrate a more balanced personality and, even when he tried, couldn't pull it off. After a counterprotester was killed during a weekend of neo-Nazi rallies last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, he made a mild public statement but then followed it with a rambling press conference where he declared there were "good people" among the white supremacists.
The Trump who chafed at doing the right thing after Charlottesville is the real article. At 72, having practiced this kind of rhetoric for decades, he cannot be expected to change. He will continue to create scapegoats and enemies and demand that his lies be accepted. And since Trump only knows to double his bets, he'll make the election of 2020 even more of an agony.