On the eve of the midterm elections, the American economy is humming. Another quarter-million jobs in October have pushed unemployment down to 3.7 per cent, and, for the first time in a long, long time, wages are starting to rise.
That, however, is not Donald Trump’s closing argument.
Instead, Trump has returned to the rhetoric that launched his presidential campaign more than three years ago: fear-mongering and racism.
On Thursday, he tweeted out the most racist presidential campaign ad in modern American history, a mash-up of falsehoods and nativism. He started his presidential bid warning that Mexicans were rapists and murderers; he’s heading into the midterms arguing that, actually, it’s all immigrants crossing the southern border.
Doubling-down on hate has been one of Trump’s core tactics, the one he returns to again and again. In the years since, we’ve seen the consequences of that rhetoric. In just the past week, the United States has witnessed a bomb plot aimed at taking out the leaders of the Democratic Party, the shooting death of two African-Americans by an avowed white supremacist, and the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history.
Trump bears at least part of the blame for these crimes. He is well aware of the rise in violent white nationalism in the United States. It was, after all, only one day after Trump announced his presidential bid that white supremacist Dylann Roof walked into a historically black Emanuel church in Charleston and slaughtered nine people.
Trump had nothing to do with Roof’s crimes. Rather, his campaign helped legitimise the racial animosities that have become more mainstream in the past few years. White supremacists celebrated Trump’s comments after the violence in Charlottesville last year, while mainstream Republicans have worked to turn his nativist promises — like his pledge last week to end birthright citizenship — into actually policy.
Nor has the shocking violence of the past few weeks changed the rhetoric coming from the Republican camp. The call to end birthright citizenship came after the attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead. So did Trump’s pledge to send thousands of troops to the southern border in the next few days, to face off against an unarmed caravan of refugee-seekers who are still more than 1400 kilometres away.
Candidates like Senator Ted Cruz, seeking re-election in Texas in a surprisingly tight race against Beto O’Rourke, have picked up Trump’s arguments about the caravan in a last-ditch effort to win — even though evidence has emerged that scare-mongering about the caravan sparked the massacre in Pittsburgh.
Democrats, on the other hand, have been laser-focused on economic policy. Despite Trump’s slogan “Jobs Not Mobs" it is the left that has been digging deep into the problems with the American economy that persist despite its overall health. Pledges to raise the minimum wage, pursue Medicare for All, forgive student loans, increase taxes on the wealthy to help balance the budget — all form an economic platform with broad public support. But can popular policies overcome the emotional power of fear?
They may not have to. Because there’s plenty of fear fuelling the Democratic base as well, and it’s far more rooted in reality. Across the country, people of colour, Jews and women have taken note of the rise in violent rhetoric and the disregard for victims of sexual assault. They have witnessed the appearance of camps near the nation’s borders, designed to detain indefinitely migrant children and parents — together or separately. They have noted the threats to strip people of their citizenship rights, to block their access to the voting booth, to turn away refugees, to censor media outlets. The stakes are impossibly high.
Indeed, it is those competing sets of fears that are fuelling record turnouts across the country. Early voting numbers are way, way up. Even young voters, despite being regularly castigated for not turning up at the polls, are expected to see their turnout levels increase between 50 and 100 per cent. Midterm elections, which usually have dismal voter participation rates of around 30 to 40 per cent, are expected to pass 50 per cent and topple the modern record set in 1966.
Even Republican attempts to restrict voting rights seems to have backfired. In black communities across the United States, civil rights groups have worked to organise and mobilise voters to insure they make it to the polls, despite the new barriers put in their way.
In North Dakota, Republicans passed a new law requiring street addresses in order to vote, a way of disenfranchising the Native American voters who helped Democrat Heidi Heitkamp squeak out a victory in the 2012 Senate race. Not only have activists raced to assign street addresses to homes on reservations, which traditionally do not have them, but tribal leaders have launched aggressive voter registration efforts that seem likely to increase Native American turnout this year.
The American electorate is in flux, much like American democracy itself. Tuesday’s vote will provide no final answers as to what either will look like in two or 10 or 20 years. But the election will serve as a marker of where we are two years into the Trump presidency, and how much fear has bolstered both the politics of reaction and resistance.