CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — President Trump is painting an astonishingly apocalyptic vision of America under Democratic control in the campaign’s final days, unleashing a torrent of falsehoods and portraying his political opponents as desiring crime, squalor and poverty.
As voters prepare to render their first verdict on his presidency in Tuesday’s midterm elections, Trump is claiming that Democrats want to erase the nation’s borders and provide sanctuary to drug dealers, human traffickers and MS-13 killers. He is warning that they would destroy the economy, obliterate Medicare and unleash a wave of violent crime that endangers families everywhere. And he is alleging that they would transform the United States into Venezuela with socialism run amok.
Trump has never been hemmed in by fact, fairness or even logic. The 45th president proudly refuses to apologize and routinely violates the norms of decorum that guided his predecessors. But at one mega-rally after another in the run-up to Tuesday’s midterm elections, Trump has taken his no-boundaries political ethos to a new level — demagoguing the Democrats in a whirl of distortion and using the power of the federal government to amplify his fantastical arguments.
In Columbia, Mo., the president suggested that Democrats “run around like antifa” demonstrators in black uniforms and black helmets, but underneath, they have “this weak little face” and “go back home into mommy’s basement.”
In Huntington, W.Va., Trump called predatory immigrants “the worst scum in the world” but alleged that Democrats welcome them by saying, “Fly right in, folks. Come on in. We don’t care who the hell you are, come on in!”
And in Macon, Ga., he charged that if Democrat Stacey Abrams is elected governor, she would take away the Second Amendment right to bear arms — though as a state official, she would not have the power to change the Constitution.
Unmoored from reality, Trump has at times become a false prophet, too. He has been promising a 10 percent tax cut for the middle class, though no such legislation exists. And he has sounded alarms over an imminent “invasion” of dangerous “illegal aliens,” referring to a caravan of Central American migrants that includes many women and children, is traveling by foot and is not expected to reach the U.S.-Mexico border for several weeks, if at all.
With his breathtaking cascade of orations, tweets, media appearances and presidential actions, Trump has dictated the terms of the political debate in the final week of the campaign even though he is not up for reelection for two years.
“He goes out and says crazy, horrible things, blows race whistles and sits back and watches his topic of craziness dominate cable TV for the next 24 hours,” said Republican strategist Mike Murphy, a Trump critic. “Everybody repeats his charge, and then there’s a lot of pearl-clutching and tsk-tsking, and then repeating it again.”
Trump’s omnipresence has frustrated Democrats, who are attempting to stay focused on their campaign messages of health care and other pocketbook issues.
“It’s really important not to take the bait from the president, with his scare-a-thon and his this-and-that,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in an interview this weekend. “That diverts people from what is really important in their lives and how this election will make a difference.”
Trump has had only one formative political experience: His 2016 race for president, which he won against odds by galvanizing his conservative base around nativist themes. Two years later, he is returning to the same playbook.
“This freneticism at the end . . . him ratcheting up to a new level of histrionics and fear, the question is, ‘Is there a point of diminishing returns?’ ” asked David Axelrod, who was former president Barack Obama’s chief strategist. “Do these tactics at once offend some people but also appear so fundamentally contrived that even some who are inclined to vote for Republicans say, you lost me here?”
“His gamble is that this will work,” Axelrod added. “Certainly the veracity doesn’t bother him, and the optics don’t bother him. The only thing that would bother him is losing.”
Trump is campaigning as if his presidency were on the line — and in a way, it is. Should Democrats win the House majority, as public polling suggests, they probably would use their subpoena power to launch investigations into the president and his behavior and, perhaps, begin impeachment proceedings.
“All his bad characteristics get amplified when he’s in a crunch,” Murphy said. “He doesn’t have any allegiance to the truth or reality to begin with, so he’s drunk on crowds, in a corner and under great political pressure.”
Trump’s campaign maneuvers — which Vice President Pence and many Republican candidates are reinforcing and defending — are not only rhetorical.
The president last week deployed thousands of U.S. troops to the border, ostensibly to protect the United States from the coming caravan, and has gloated on the stump about the “beautiful barbed wire” they have installed there. Several prominent former military leaders have denounced the deployment as a political stunt.
Trump has been fueling the baseless conspiracy theory that the caravan is being funded by George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and Democratic mega-donor who was the target of a mail bomb last month. The same conspiracy theory allegedly motivated the suspect in the mass slaughter at a Pittsburgh synagogue eight days ago.
“They want to invite caravan after caravan, and it is a little suspicious how those caravans are starting, isn’t it?” Trump asked at a Saturday night rally in Pensacola, Fla. “Isn’t it a little? And I think it’s a good thing maybe that they did it. Did they energize our base or what?”
Trump also has floated the idea of signing an executive order to end birthright citizenship. Many legal experts argue he does not have that power because the 14th Amendment to the Constitution protects the right to citizenship for any child born in the United States.
“These ideas are mostly stunts that serve to act as a semaphore,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and a former chief speechwriter in the Clinton White House. “The executive order is flatly unconstitutional. The tax cut that is going to be passed by Election Day is nonexistent. And the generated panic over the caravan and sending up to 15,000 troops to the border is expensive political theater and not much more.”
Trump’s focus on immigration and nationalist appeals is part of a strategy to counter high voter enthusiasm on the left by mobilizing all of his 2016 supporters to turn out for other Republicans. As Pence says in his stump speech, “That blue wave is going to hit a red wall.”
“Their calculus is that every voter that surged for Trump is a Trump person first and foremost and not a DeSantis person or Scott person, so they’re leaning in on full Trumpism,” Steven Schale, a Florida-based Democratic operative, referring to the state’s GOP candidates for governor and Senate, respectively.
At his Saturday rally in Belgrade, Mont., Trump told a cheering crowd, without a hint of irony, “I’m the only one that tells you the facts.”
But Trump’s flood of misinformation has swelled to epic proportions in recent weeks, according to an analysis by The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. In the seven weeks leading up to the election, the president made 1,419 false or misleading claims, an average of 30 a day. That compares with 1,318 false or misleading claims during the first nine months of his presidency, an average of five a day.
Each of Trump’s rallies usually yields 35 to 45 suspect claims, which he has repeated in media appearances, according to The Fact Checker analysis.
Trump’s supporters say they don’t much care about the falsehood meter. At his rally Wednesday in Estero, Fla., one Trump fan after another explained away the president’s disregard for the truth.
Hope Heisler, an emergency room doctor: “I’m not a fact-checker. All of the candidates, whether they be Republican or Democrat, don’t say things completely accurately all the time. But I trust in President Trump.”
Linda Sears, a housewife: “Presidents should tell the truth, but sometimes they make mistakes. . . . At least Trump tells it like it is. Trump is a truth teller.”
Pat Banker, a retired registered nurse: “I don’t think he lies. He gets excited when he’s talking, and he likes to exaggerate a little bit. But that’s just his way.”
Trump has never had much of an appetite for nuance, and he has been framing the choice before voters on Tuesday in terms of black and white, right and wrong.
“This election is a choice between Republican results and radical resistance,” Trump told a rally crowd Thursday in Columbia, Mo. “It’s a choice between greatness and gridlock. It’s a choice between jobs and mobs. And it’s a choice between an economy that is going strong and the Democrats who are going crazy.”
When it comes to assailing Democrats, Trump — who for years was a registered Democrat — has adopted a kitchen-sink strategy. On Friday night in Indianapolis, he told thousands of red-capped supporters, “If Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and the legendary Maxine Waters, if they take power, they will try to erase our gains and eradicate our progress.
“The Democrats want to raise your taxes. They want to restore job-killing regulations. They want to shut down your steel mills. And that will happen.”
He kept going.
“They want to take away your real health care and use socialism to turn America into Venezuela,” Trump continued. “Lovely place, lovely place. And Democrats want to totally open borders.”
The crowd reacted, just on cue, with loud boos.
Mike DeBonis in Washington contributed to this report.