One constant of Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency and his two years in power is how behavior that would be not just risky but downright stupid for any normal politician ends up working smartly for him.
This is the essence of the Trump Mystique — a three-year record in which he regularly demonstrated that many of the normal precedents, patterns and truisms of American politics simply do not apply to him. This mystique — Is it real or illusion? Is his patented sorcery still working? — is among the big questions being tested in Tuesday’s elections.
Trump’s own decisions over the past month have put the issue — whether Trump has defied political gravity or merely delayed its impact — in even sharper relief than it would have been anyway.
It would be smart, viewed through a conventional prism, for a president who has never commanded majority support to try to float above the midterms and allow politicians of his own party to keep their elections locally focused. It seems stupid to unite and energize the opposition in their loathing by insisting that congressional elections are a national referendum on himself.
It would be smart, if playing by normal rules, for a leader presiding over the best employment numbers in decades to make an economic argument his main push against the headwind that the incumbent president’s party historically faces in midterm elections. It seems stupid to reduce this to secondary status in favor of picking scabs over immigration and societal violence in the days before voting.
For every Republican operative who thinks Trump’s midterm strategy is nuts, there is a Democratic operative who worries that Trump’s polarizing approach just might allow him to beat the odds.
In the disoriented state of contemporary politics, however, it seems stupid for anyone to pretend to be smart in predicting the results of Trump’s decision to turn the volume up to 11 on Trumpism.
As Trump himself cast the implications for Tuesday in a weekend stop in Georgia: “I wouldn’t say it’s as important as ’16 but it’s right up there.”
Some dynamics seem inescapably true. One is that at nearly every important turn when traditional political logic would have pointed toward softening the tone and broadening support — from his 2016 acceptance speech to the 2017 inaugural address and countless other occasions since — Trump took the opposite path and along the way tightened his connection to his most devoted supporters.
A vivid recent example was over the sexual assault allegations against his Supreme Court pick, Brett Kavanaugh. For a few days Trump deferred to prevailing wisdom that he needed to treat accuser Christine Blasey Ford respectfully and project an open mind on the merits. Before long he returned to his customary instincts and attacked Ford, Democrats and the media, while cheering on Kavanaugh’s own attacks on Democrats.
For every Republican operative who thinks Trump’s midterm strategy is nuts — one senior GOP strategist running competitive statewide races said the president’s image took a 15-point hit in internal campaign polling over the past 10 days — there is a Democratic operative who worries that Trump’s polarizing approach just might allow him to beat the odds as he did in 2016.
But that same approach raises the cost of GOP setbacks for Trump, who has often made clear his own view that power is partly a matter of perception, and preserving an aura of strength and success. A narrow House loss, for instance, would surely be explained as the result of normal historical patterns. In the case of a national blowout, no matter if Trump blamed others, the result would be like a baby with a paunch and comb-over: No way to deny paternity.
“I do think it’s a little unfair to put it all on him because you start behind the eight-ball,” said a senior GOP Senate strategist, pointing to the usual historical pattern with a president’s first midterm election. “What I think is different [in 2018] is that while the president always has the ability to define the agenda, he takes all of the oxygen out of the air. The reality is, these races are completely national. And while there’s always a national bent to congressional races, there’s really no escaping it this time.”
A senior White House official said political advisers applied a three-prong test this fall in deciding where to send Trump. One was whether they could find good rally venues. Two was data suggesting which districts were especially promising if Trump could manage to ignite GOP-leaning voters who might normally vote in presidential elections but not midterms. Third was protectiveness, trying to avoid races where Trump would risk being blamed for a race that was a likely loser anyway.
The president’s vituperative attacks on Democrats and race-baiting immigration rhetoric broke new ground on divisiveness, but in one sense he was making a calculation — can a president influence the midterms to advantage? — familiar to three of his recent predecessors.
One key aspect of Trump’s mystique is that he will argue that his mystique is undimmed no matter the result.
In 1994, Bill Clinton’s advisers urged him to take it easy and mostly stay off the campaign trail in favor of the White House and overseas trips. He didn’t buy it — convinced he could persuade voters to back him and Democrats if he could just get in front of enough of them. Polling suggested otherwise, and political aides later concluded that an unseasoned president’s own efforts helped fuel the GOP historic congressional takeover that year.
In 2002, the backdrop of 9/11 one year earlier changed the landscape for George W. Bush. Stressing national security themes, he helped Republicans make historically unusual congressional gains.
In 2010, Barack Obama saw a conservative backlash over spending to combat recession and the financial crash, as well as the Affordable Care Act. He campaigned in some districts where he was welcome but he knew it wasn’t doing much good. “There’s no doubt this is a difficult election,” he said at a Cleveland rally. He was right: November brought a “shellacking,” as he called it, that lost the Congress and reached deep into statehouses around the country.
Similar results in the opposite direction against Republicans Tuesday will not only put subpoena power in the hands of the president’s political foes — it could lead the handful of prominent Trump dissenters in the national GOP to urge others to join their cause.
“Yeah, he’s going to lose the House,” said Bill Kristol, editor at large of the Weekly Standard and a leading Trump critic. “They’re gonna lose eight to ten governorships probably. So, where is the brilliance? Where is the political magic? … He got 46 percent of the vote in 2016. It looks like Republicans are going to get, if they’re lucky, 46 percent of the vote [or lower]. … So what has Trump done for the party?”
Not that Trump will admit as much. Terry Sullivan, who managed Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign, suggested that one key aspect of Trump’s mystique is that he will argue that his mystique is undimmed no matter the result. “Don’t take my word for it. Ask him tomorrow,” Sullivan said Monday. “Don’t take my word for it, ask his supporters. He will say that candidates that he campaigned with won and the ones who didn’t want to campaign with him lost. And the ones that lost that he campaigned with did better than they would have if they hadn’t campaigned with him — he made the race closer, so much closer.”
For all Sullivan’s evident sarcasm, Michael Strain, director of economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute, effectively agreed that Trump’s activities in the closing days of the campaign might help in some districts but won’t be the decisive factor if the evening ends in a big GOP defeat. “I think that the cake on the president is kind of baked — that people have a view of the Republican Party under Donald Trump” that won’t swing widely based on any day’s headlines, he said. “That suggests to me that if the president were talking about the economy and not talking about the caravan, that wouldn’t necessarily be a better strategy to get Republicans to win.”