Neither Grand, Nor Old, But Something New and Nasty
August 23, 2018 | Since the beginning of the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaigns nearly four years ago, no shortage of arguments lambasting the Republican Party for its apparent tolerance of Donald Trump have been made. What first seemed like a joke to many, Trump’s political career has now altered the brand and substance of the GOP. While many respectable political scientists were discussing the Republican problem well before 2016, debating the how and why of the GOP’s current state is, quite frankly, too little, too late. Our reality is that the Republican Party supports Trump through and through, and that will not change.
August 21, 2018—perhaps the most turbulent news day yet for the president—may yet be a tipping point for U.S. politics, however. This is not because Republicans are beginning to rebuke their own president, though a number of conservatives have tepidly done so in the light of Michael Cohen’s and Paul Manafort’s respective headlines. Rather, the Democrats and any entity that claims resistance to the cancer that the GOP has become must use the events of August 21 as a war drum against the Republican Party in the looming midterm elections.
It might seem tired to call for war drums, given the steady barrage of vitriol Trump has faced since he clinched the presidency. What most do not realize, however, is that deep, structural aspects of the game have changed as of two days ago—and only to Trump’s severe detriment.
Manafort’s conviction and especially Cohen’s guilty plea now bring the legal spotlight dangerously close to Trump. This is critical not just because voters generally view potentially criminal presidents poorly, but in the context of how the GOP has rebranded itself in the last 20 years and particularly in the last eight.
If any lesson should be drawn from contemporary U.S. politics, it is that fear is the staple of the Republican Party.
Fear is a powerful political tool. The GOP is not the first political entity to utilize it, though the party was using it long before Trump. The GOP’s remarkable ability to inspire consistent voter turnout in elections, particularly in crucial swing states, is by motivating voters through fear. Combined with smart electoral strategy and a healthy dose of district manipulation—gerrymandering, often to the detriment of marginalized communities—the GOP is very good at winning with a platform of fear.
Trump’s alteration of the GOP in recent years is just taking the traditional fear-based brand into an extreme direction. The president’s authoritarian rhetoric and policies show this; he’s built a narrative around being tough on crime and having a strong state. This appeals to voters who feel threatened with the turbulent and globalized twenty-first century.
A Blue Wave means Crime and Open Borders. A Red Wave means Safety and Strength!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 21, 2018
This has been a good strategy, as the Democrats’ message has inherently been at odds with that sense of fear. Unfortunately for Trump and the GOP as a whole, that message will stop working. Trump and the Republican Party now personify that which their base despises the most: criminals and liars who are out to do the American people harm. The GOP’s message in 2016 shows that much, and the Democrats now must employ their own strategy against them.
By building a party ideology on fear and constructing an authoritarian narrative, the Republican Party has put all of its eggs in one basket and made themselves vulnerable to their own political message. They can stir up fears about Hillary Clinton, border problems, or terrorism all they want, but the incredible headlines surrounding both Cohen and Manafort will be hard to ignore given those men’s proximity to Trump—and that is assuming the stories with those two men or others close to Trump do not further proliferate. Given the fact that Manafort is slated for another federal trial in Washington, D.C., that is highly improbable.
Even while the legal outcomes in Manafort’s and Cohen’s cases have endowed the Democratic Party with powerful tools to outperform the GOP in the 2018 midterms and beyond, it will be an uphill battle for the Democratic Party. As previously addressed, the GOP at its core is not conceding loyalty to Trump. The party’s base and leadership alike have doubled down by pointing out that these legal matters have little to do with collusion with Russia.
They will no doubt repeat such narratives, as diversion is the new GOP’s favorite defense, despite how terribly weak this particular argument is. Indeed, just this morning Fox News published its exclusive interview with the president in which he stated that the economy would "crash" if he were impeached—and simultaneously gaslighting viewers by falsely claiming that Cohen's crimes were not crimes.
Democrats need to focus on the swing states susceptible to a fear-based message. The left should highlight the fact that Trump and his inner circle are criminals, and that the Republican leadership means to harm the American people for the sake of maintaining power and supporting Trump. This will involve ad spending and investments in voter mobilization campaigns to levels never before seen, in what is already a cash-flushed midterm election. Only after the Democratic Party has repeated this message over and over and over again to swing populations will it have an effect on who gets elected. It is an exhausting, but tried and true method.
Ultimately, Democratic and resistance voters alike will have to not only vote, but open their own wallets if they want to defeat the disease of the GOP. Certain races, such as the one between Beto O’Rourke (D) and Ted Cruz (R) for the latter’s seat in the Senate, are attracting such funding and attention. Other races such as the senate races in Arizona and Nevada or the race for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’s (R-WA) seat are deserving of such resources as well.
Hopefully the left can utilize what tools it has been given in recent days to the fullest extent, but that will only be possible with monumental effort and participation from all those that resist Trump and the toxic GOP.
Sophia Freuden is a criminal defense paralegal, former State Department intern, and graduate from Lewis & Clark College's international affairs program.
Photo in the public domain.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.