Photo: Bloomberg Photo By Andrew Harrer
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President Donald Trump used to attack Democrats as mere obstructionists determined to block his agenda. But with the opposition poised to seize control of the House, he’s painting them in far darker strokes — as dangerous socialists hell-bent on turning the country into a poverty-stricken crime scene.
“You don’t hand matches to an arsonist and you don’t give power to an angry left-wing mob and that’s what the Democrats have become,” Trump said Tuesday during a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “They would turn our country so fast into Venezuela. And Venezuela’s not doing too well, folks.”
In a Wednesday USA Today op-ed that was riddled with hyperbole, Trump wrote that Democratic control of Congress would bring the U.S. “dangerously closer to socialism in America” and “destroy American prosperity.”
It’s a strategy built on the idea that the coarsening of America’s political rhetoric is an asset, not a liability, for a president who rose to power by insulting his opponents and leaning on bravado. But Trump’s increasingly caustic attacks are unique for the American presidency, an office whose previous occupants have traditionally felt an obligation to unite the country rather than fan divisions and conflict.
The president has intensified his attacks as the midterm elections for control of Congress draw nearer and as the fight over the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has grown increasingly fraught. With his ridiculing of a woman who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault and references to a left-wing “mob,” Trump has provided a template for congressional candidates to follow.
“My fear is that the Rubicon has been crossed,” said Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. “Others will see that this is the way to power and will use this model and the only thing that will stop that is if we get a reaction on behalf of the people.”
Stirring up voter fears that political opponents will adopt policies leading to higher crime, higher taxes or cuts in government benefits is a card long played by both parties. But Trump has escalated the attacks by claiming that chaos, crime and economic catastrophe aren’t just the result of Democratic policies — it’s the party’s goal.
“The Democrats have become too extreme and too dangerous to govern,” Trump said at a rally last week in Kansas.
At political rallies in recent weeks, Trump has labeled Democrats “the party of crime” and has said they “want to unleash violent predators and ruthless killers” onto American streets. He has warned that the country would plunge into gridlock and poverty if Democrats take control of Congress next year. He has also called Democrats “crazy,” “loco,” and “crazy loco.”
Republican strategist Doug Heye said that while Trump has been “over the top” at times, Democrats have provided the GOP ammunition with their tactics and language, which have included repeated mass protests against the president.
“The bet that both parties seem to be making is that this is an election all about base turnout,” said Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee and Republican congressional leaders. “Voters tend to react more to the negative than the positive — that certainly was the case with Trump.”
The president also regularly misleads and exaggerates when he goes on the attack.
In his USA Today op-ed attacking a Democratic proposal to expand Medicare, the health program for the elderly and disabled, to cover all Americans, he accused Democrats of trying to “eviscerate Medicare.”
But the Medicare-for-all legislation is not designed to “take away benefits” from seniors, as he wrote. He has also supported legislation that would have allowed insurers to charge sick people more money, rather than “protect coverage for patients with pre-existing conditions,” as he wrote.
He often inaccurately paints opposition to his policies as support for the most extreme alternatives.
For example, Democrats oppose his construction of a border wall but don’t advocate for “unleashing violent predators and ruthless killers” or for “open borders” or to “dismantle law enforcement,” as Trump has charged. And Democrats don’t want to “end ethanol,” another claim Trump made Tuesday evening in Iowa after ordering his administration to permit year-round sales of gasoline containing the chemical.
Trump’s rhetoric has always been strident — in his inaugural address, he lamented what called “American carnage” under his predecessor. But he has sharpened his attacks on Democrats with polls showing Republicans in danger of losing the House thanks to voters enthusiastic to show their disapproval of the president at the ballot box.
Trump’s references to “socialism” increased after liberals won several Democratic primaries earlier this year, notably including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who describes herself as a Democratic socialist and has loaned her sudden star power to like-minded candidates.
“Radical Democrats want to tear down our laws, tear down our institutions in pursuit of power, demolish our prosperity in the name of socialism and probably worse,” the president said at a Mississippi rally last week.
The bitter nomination battle over Kavanaugh meanwhile has coalesced Republicans around a more bare-knuckles approach to the midterms. And Trump has been more than willing to lead the charge.
Singling out Democrats who opposed Kavanaugh after three women accused him of sexual misconduct decades ago, Trump accused them of being “evil” and said he had seen one unnamed senator in “compromising” situations.
“They want to destroy people,” he said at the Mississippi rally, during which he also mocked Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford. “These are really evil people.”
Kavanaugh has denied the accusations and was confirmed Saturday by the Senate in a 50-48 vote. Hours afterward, Trump claimed that his Mississippi rally “was a very big turning point” that helped seal Kavanaugh’s elevation to the high court.
Democrats’ handling of the allegations against Kavanaugh outraged the Republican base, and the party’s candidates across the country began to shift their political strategy toward Trump’s model.
Several top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have described activists who protested Kavanaugh’s nomination as a “mob” and have sought to paint Democrats as a party that welcomes violent extremists. The language echoes Trump’s charge that the opposition party is unfit to govern.
“I want to thank the mob for all their help,” McConnell said Saturday in an interview. “It’s ended up being a big political help to us.”
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel also used the word “mob” in an attack on Democrats regarded as potential competitors to Trump in 2020.
The president’s dependence on hyperbole and inflammatory language receives less condemnation from Republican leaders today than it did when he campaigned for office, so there’s little incentive for him to tone it down, according to Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law School professor and frequent Trump critic who teaches a class on the presidency. And the impact on the country may be long lasting.
“I think that as dangerous as he has shown himself to be in many contexts, he’s said very little that’s quite as alarming as this,” Tribe said. “It’s rhetoric drawn directly from the playbook of fascists and dictators.”
–Bloomberg’s Laura Litvan contributed.