The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump and Republicans settle on fear — and falsehoods — as a midterm strategy

President Trump walks from the Oval Office to board Marine One to depart from the South Lawn of the White House on Monday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump has settled on a strategy of fear — laced with falsehoods and racially tinged rhetoric — to help lift his party to victory in the coming midterms, part of a broader effort to energize Republican voters with two weeks left until the Nov. 6 elections. 

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.

When asked what evidence President Trump had that “unknown Middle Easterners” were in the migrant caravan, he told reporters to "search" with their cameras. (Video: The Washington Post)

“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.”

The approach in many ways seeks to re-create the 2016 playbook that lifted Trump to the presidency, in which cultural flash points and controversies, like the specter of mass illegal migration, helped energize Trump’s supporters. The president believes his best contrast with Democrats is on immigration and is looking for a way to keep the issue in the news until the midterms, advisers said.

Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior policy adviser who has long espoused hard-line immigration policies, is one of the chief authors of Trump’s rally messages, though the president often goes further than his prepared remarks.

But unlike two years ago — when some Republicans were hesitant to follow their nominee’s lead in using divisive rhetoric — Republicans are now more eagerly following the president’s cues, including in their own campaign rhetoric and ads.

“It’s a standard tactic to use fear as a motivating choice at the end of a campaign and the fact is the fork in the road is pretty stark,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noting the possibility of investigations or impeachment proceedings in a Democratic House.

The overall strategy, Trump advisers and political operatives said, is to paint a portrait of a chaotic, dangerous world — with Trump and Republicans as the panacea. 

“Voter satisfaction is the enemy of voter turnout,” said Bill Stepien, the White House political director. “What’s changed is that while voters are still happy in the direction the president is leading the country, they’re angry at the way Democrats treated Justice Kavanaugh, they’re scared when they hear Democrat after Democrat talking about socializing medicine and Medicare-for-All, and voters are plugged in as the president spends more and more time on the campaign trail.”

Over the past several weeks, the president has begun focusing on a “Jobs Not Mobs” message — portraying Democrats as “too dangerous to govern,” a threat to Medicare and Social Security, supporters of voter fraud, and funders of caravans of migrants.

Many of the president’s assertions are false or clear distortions of the facts. Trump is incorrect, for example, in his claim that Democrats will “destroy” both Medicare and Social Security, while he has made both programs “stronger.” There is also no evidence that Democrats are paying for the migrant caravan snaking its way north toward the southern border, while voter fraud remains exceedingly rare. 

But that has not stopped the president from repeating such false or misleading claims, in part because advisers say his key midterm strategy is to fuel Republican turnout by riling up his most avid supporters, often through frightening and emotional appeals. 

On this point, Democrats agree. 

“As Election Day approaches, the president is running the only play he knows: fear,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.). “He’s seeking to suppress the vote of those who oppose him with the threat of prosecution and trying to motivate his supporters with round-the-clock talk of the caravan. This strategy reflects Trump’s bankruptcy of ideas and a realization that it’s not mobs going to the polls, but moms. Lots of moms.”

The migrant caravan has proved to be a particularly effective wedge issue for Trump, according to White House aides and Republican operatives. Images of the caravan are already dominating cable news coverage, allowing Trump to revive an issue that was successful for him two years ago.

Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser, described the caravan as “a political gift.”

“I wish they were carrying heroin. I wish we had thought of it. It speaks to the dearth of our creativity, unfortunately,” Bennett said. “There are 7,000 people marching toward the U.S. border. One party wants to let them in. The other party wants to keep them out.” 

Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally and former House speaker, has begun calling the caravans “an invasion,” and hosted a Facebook Live chat Monday under the headline “the #caravan attack on America.”

“Voters are motivated by fear and they’re also motivated by anger,” Gingrich said in an interview with The Washington Post. “When I see 7,000 people marching toward my border carrying Honduran flags and arrogantly demanding that we allow them to cross, the first reaction I feel is anger. They are trying to invade my home.”

Trump seems intent on keeping the focus on the migrants as well. In a telephone interview with The Post on Saturday about the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the president at one point began to complain about the Central American caravan and argue that new actions were required at the border. He declined to offer specifics. 

In tweets Monday, Trump warned without offering evidence that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” and urged voters to “think of and blame the Democrats for not giving us the votes to change our pathetic Immigration Laws!” A Trump-backed immigration plan failed to pass earlier this year, but not just because of Democrats: 14 Republicans also opposed the bill. 

Trump’s claim — again, without providing evidence — that Middle Easterners are “mixed in” with the caravan is an example of how some leaders blend a mix of fact and fiction to instill fear in their electorate, said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who studies authoritarian rulers.

“This is the way propaganda works,” Ben-Ghiat said. “You put different enemies together that really have nothing to do with one another. He’s trying to create this image of a wave of people of color, or threats, who are coming to invade the border.”

At last Thursday’s rally in Missoula, Mont., Trump alleged without evidence that Democrats were paying migrants to enter the United States so that they could vote for Democratic candidates.

“A lot of money’s been passing to people to come up and try to get to the border by Election Day, because they think that’s a negative for us,” Trump said. He added that Democrats like “the illegal immigration onslaught” because “everybody coming in is going to vote Democrat.”

The president went on to posit that some of the migrants attempting to cross the border into the United States were “hardened criminals” and “bad people,” but again declined to cite any evidence.

When a reporter asked him for an example, he dismissed her question with, “Oh, please, please, don’t be a baby.”

If the caravan is the president’s current favored cudgel against his rivals, it is not his only one. Trump also accused Democrats of wanting to “take away your health care,” “destroy your Second Amendment” and “throw open your borders to deadly drugs and vicious gangs.” None of those things appears in the platforms of Democratic challengers.

Republicans accuse Democrats of using scare tactics as well. They are warning voters that the president and his party will decimate their health-care coverage by repealing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and arguing, to varying degrees, that Trump is unfit to lead the nation.

But Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen argued that, so far, Democrats are largely unwilling to employ the same strategies as the president. 

“I don’t think we have come up with a formula yet where hysteria matches hysteria effectively,” Rosen said. “I know some people think we’re going to have to get there in 2020, but we’re definitely not there now.”