But as the midterm elections approach and Republicans face the possibility of a stinging defeat, they are wading deep into the sewer with remarkable enthusiasm. Lies, demagoguery, fear-mongering, race-baiting, voter suppression — their effort to avert disaster has it all.
It starts at the top. In recent days, President Trump has done what seemed impossible: Lie more often and in more grandiose ways than he had before. Nearly every day he’s holding a rally to shore up vulnerable Republican candidates, and the results are positively mind-boggling. Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star, perhaps the best media chronicler of Trump deception, argues that Trump “has rarely before deployed so many complete fabrications about so many important subjects at the same time.” And as The Post reports, his tone has grown darker in recent days:
Trump’s messaging — on display in his regular campaign rallies, tweets and press statements — largely avoids much talk of his achievements and instead offers an apocalyptic vision of the country, which he warns will only get worse if Democrats retake control of Congress.The president has been especially focused in recent days on a caravan of about 5,000 migrants traveling north to cross the U.S. border, a group he has darkly characterized as gang members, violent criminals and “unknown Middle Easterners” — a claim for which his administration has so far provided no concrete evidence.“You’re going to find MS-13, you’re going to find Middle Eastern, you’re going to find everything. And guess what? We’re not allowing them in our country,” Trump said, when asked by reporters Wednesday if he had any proof of terrorists infiltrating the caravan. “We want safety.”
Some of the particular lies Trump is telling are familiarly ludicrous (Democrats want open borders, Democrats love crime), while others are positively bonkers (Democrats want to give cars to undocumented immigrants). As he has so often before, Trump invents disturbing events that never took place: During the 2016 campaign, he said that thousands of Muslim Americans celebrated 9/11, and now he claims that Californians are “rioting” because they’re so mad about sanctuary cities. If you missed news of these events, it’s because they’re imaginary.
On the rare occasions when a reporter is able to ask Trump for evidence for his more fantastical claims, he simply waves away the request and repeats the lie. When one reporter asked what proof he had that the people walking through Mexico in a caravan are “hardened criminals,” he replied with this clever riposte: “Oh please. Please. Don’t be a baby, okay?” And of course, terrorists have to be added to the smorgasbord of threats coming from Mexico, because if you were a member of the Islamic State trying to get to the United States, the way to do it would definitely be to fly to Guatemala, then walk 1,500 miles in a group being followed every step of the way by the news media.
One can’t help but wonder how Republicans respond in their own minds to this blizzard of dishonesty. I’m sure that your average Republican politician thinks he’s a good person, and that he also thinks he’s honest. But when he sees his leader, the one he supports with such enthusiasm, go before a cheering crowd and vomit out a string of race-baiting lies, does he pause for a moment and ask what his own moral culpability is?
I really don’t know. What I do know is that up and down the ballot, Republicans are waging a positively Trumpian campaign. Too many of them to count are suddenly claiming, after spending years trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act and its protections for people with preexisting conditions, that in fact they are the ones fighting to maintain those protections (they aren’t). They’re spinning out anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. They’re implying their opponents are potential terrorists.
Of course, there’s plenty of precedent for campaigns based on fear and racism. To take just one example, these days we remember George H.W. Bush as an honorable, genteel moderate; we tend not to mention that in 1988 he ran one of the most despicably race-baiting campaigns in American history (“By the time we’re finished, they’re going to wonder whether Willie Horton is Dukakis’s running mate,” said Bush’s campaign manager Lee Atwater).
But what we haven’t seen is a figure like Trump, someone who lies so much and who embraces the politics of fear and hatred with such glee. I’d like to think that after nominating, electing, embracing, defending, supporting and justifying him, Republicans will have forever given up the right to criticize the tactics that Democrats employ or accuse anyone of dishonesty.
Unfortunately, that’s not how things work. Win or lose, there is seldom any accountability in American politics. Trump can celebrate a violent assault on a reporter and allege in the same speech that “the Democrats have truly turned into an angry mob,” to the cheers of the crowd. Republicans can genuflect before the most promiscuous liar in American political history, then turn around and say the other side can’t be trusted. Which they will do. And if they do lose, they will decide that it was only because they weren’t harsh enough in their tactics. And in 2020, we’ll go through this all again. Only it might be even worse.