The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump, self-described ‘nationalist,’ turns midterms into a forum on American identity

Pittsburgh residents protested President Trump's visit to the city on Oct. 30, three days after a gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue. (Video: Melissa Macaya, Nick Childers/The Washington Post)

President Trump, a self-styled “nationalist” who has warned of an “invasion” of refugees from Central America, is making the fundamental question of American identity the centerpiece of his closing argument in the midterm elections.

Trump’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration has been a hallmark of his political brand for years, and Republican candidates have largely followed his lead throughout the 2018 campaign.

But Tuesday, with emotions still raw over the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and a string of mail bombs sent to Trump critics, the president took his efforts to a new level — vowing to issue an executive order to curtail birthright citizenship.

Trump’s sharpened tone creates potential complications for some Republican candidates, particularly those in centrist suburban House districts where many GOP voters have grown uneasy about the president, as Trump embarks on a final week of nearly nonstop rallies where immigration is likely to be a frequent topic.

There were signs Tuesday that some Trump allies were nervous about sparking a deeper cultural debate in the campaign’s final stretch, particularly with some critics alleging that hostile political rhetoric has played a role in encouraging violence.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), typically loath to criticize Trump, swiftly expressed skepticism about the president’s view that he could limit the constitutionally guaranteed citizenship rights of anyone born on U.S. soil. Later, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the head of the House Republicans’ campaign arm, condemned Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the most outspoken immigration critics in Congress, for supporting nationalist politicians, tweeting, “We must stand up against white supremacy and hate.”

Kanye West, a prominent African American musician who embraced Trump in a much-hyped Oval Office meeting this month, tweeted Tuesday: “My eyes are now wide open and now realize I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in. I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative!!!”

The Washington Post's Aaron Blake and David Nakamura analyze why President Trump's inflamed political rhetoric is being tied to a string of recent crises. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Yet many Republicans voiced support for Trump’s broader goal of limiting illegal immigration, and the president’s decision to put the issue at the forefront reflected the extent to which he has changed the rules of engagement.

While Republicans have long criticized Democrats for emphasizing “identity politics” in their courtship of ethnic minorities to win elections, Trump is now taking steps seemingly designed to mobilize his heavily white base. And with the past week’s violence coming after three years of warnings from critics that Trump was stoking racism, his unwillingness to tone down his nationalist appeals is reviving concerns about his closing strategy.

“It’s very risky,” said Alex Conant, a longtime Republican consultant. “Obviously Republicans who show up at his rallies, they love it. But he’s not going to suburbia, because a lot of those policies don’t play well with suburban Republicans. It’s frankly why our House majority is at risk.”

“Trump is single-mindedly focused on turning out his base,” Conant added. “If you’re in a deep-red state, that’s great. If you’re in a purple state or a swing district, it’s a problem.”

The approach that Trump and his allies are taking sets up a campaign in which the two parties are not so much debating as talking past one another. Trump continues to hammer away on immigration with little response from Democratic leaders, while Democrats remain almost solely focused on health care.

Trump has tried out other issues, including floating a new tax cut last week, but he rarely strays too far from immigration, the fiery topic that has animated him, and his loyal base, from the time he announced his presidential campaign in 2015.

A week ago he openly embraced the racially loaded word “nationalist” to describe his political philosophy. Even as a shocked nation turned toward a pipe-bomber from Florida and a gunman in Pittsburgh, the president amped up his rhetoric and the bluntness of his proposals to try to regain the spotlight.

First, he sounded alarms about the migrant caravan marching through Mexico, claiming that it was an “invasion” even though it remained nearly 1,000 miles away. Then, he ordered 5,200 U.S. troops to the southern border.

On Tuesday — a day when he visited grief-stricken Pittsburgh — he unveiled a constitutionally dubious proposal to end the right of U.S. citizenship for children born in the United States to noncitizens. He also talked about building tent cities for migrants.

“You cannot end birthright citizenship with an executive order,” Ryan said during a radio interview with Kentucky-based station WVLK. “We didn’t like it when Obama tried changing immigration laws via executive action, and obviously as conservatives we believe in the Constitution.”

Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) said Trump was engaging in “political malpractice” and putting suburban Republicans in competitive districts at risk.

“So now POTUS, out of nowhere, brings birthright citizenship up,” he wrote on Twitter. “Besides being basic tenet of America, it’s political malpractice.”

Bob Hugin, a Republican and Marine Corps veteran running against Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in a race that Democrats have been concerned about, also denounced Trump’s proposal.

“The President is wrong to end #BirthrightCitizenship,” he wrote on Twitter. “I took an oath to defend the Constitution including the 14th Amendment. We’re a nation of immigrants made better by the diversity of its people, especially in NJ. We need compassionate comprehensive immigration reform now.”

Those comments came shortly before Stivers condemned King, saying that his “recent comments, actions, and retweets are completely inappropriate.”

“We must stand up against white supremacy and hate in all forms, and I strongly condemn this behavior,” Stivers wrote in a tweet.

King, who is running for a ninth term, has a long record of incendiary remarks, saying in 2013 that some Hispanics have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” He has kept a Confederate flag on his desk and has unapologetically embraced white-nationalist rhetoric with little consequence.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report changed its rating for King’s district Tuesday from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican,” noting that King’s Democratic opponent has outraised him, “in large part thanks to disgusted national donors who view King as a racist.”

But other Republicans were fully embracing Trump and his political brand of attacking his opponents and using racial undertones.

The National Republican Congressional Committee — even while distancing itself from King — has been running an ad in a Minnesota congressional district showing George Soros, the Jewish philanthropist and Democratic donor who was the target of one of the pipe bombs sent by mail last week, behind stacks of cash. In Connecticut, a Republican state Senate candidate mailed campaign literature that depicts his Democratic opponent, Matthew Lesser, holding a fistful of cash near his mouth. Lesser is Jewish, and the ad has triggered complaints of anti-Semitism.

Democrats have largely avoided engaging with Trump, issuing brief statements about his immigration proposals but then quickly turning toward health care.

“President Trump’s new claim he can unilaterally end the Constitution’s guarantee of citizenship shows Republicans’ spiraling desperation to distract from their assault on Medicare, Medicaid and people with pre-existing conditions,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement Tuesday. “Clearly, Republicans will do absolutely anything to divert attention away from their votes to take away Americans’ health care.”

Democrats say the Affordable Care Act, which Republicans have voted repeatedly to repeal, is an issue that resonates with voters. They argue that Republicans are particularly vulnerable because the law includes a popular provision to protect those with preexisting conditions.

“I did vote to repeal and replace Obamacare on that House bill — I’m getting my ass kicked for it right now because it’s being misconstrued by the Democrats,” Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) told Sean Hannity on his radio show last week. “They’re trying to, you know, invoke fear in people who have family members or loved ones with preexisting conditions.”

In a seven-week period since Labor Day, health care was mentioned in 45 percent of all federal campaign ads, according to an analysis released Tuesday by the Wesleyan Media Project. That was more than double the second-most-talked-about issue, taxes, followed by the budget and Medicare.

In an indication that candidates don’t want to talk about immigration as much as Trump does, the topic was mentioned in only 9 percent of ads in congressional races — less often than campaign finance and corruption.

But in an election in which both parties are trying to motivate their core supporters, immigration is still an issue that drives Republican energy.

“Xenophobia and anti-immigration has been used in elections before,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian. “It’s just surprising Trump is doing it in such a Day-Glo fashion. Usually it’s subterranean, it’s more dog whistle and nods and winks.”

If Trump’s strategy wins, it could illustrate once again that he can tap into a strain in the electorate that is more potent than many realize.

“Since the Civil War we’ve never had a president who tries to destroy the melting-pot story,” Brinkley said. “Usually it becomes a point of national pride: ‘We can all blend in here; the Statue of Liberty; everyone is welcome.’ Trump wants to make a distinction: There’s real Americans and fake Americans.”