Donald Trump says the midterm elections are a “referendum about me.” Of course they are. Everything is about him.
Anyone who still believes the political divide runs between Republicans and Democrats hasn’t been paying attention. There’s no longer a Republican Party. The GOP is now just pro-Trump.
Meanwhile Trump is doing all he can to make the Democratic Party the anti-Trump Party. “Democrats,” he declares, are “too dangerous to govern.” They’re “an angry left-wing mob,” leading an “assault on our country.”
Never before has a president of the United States been so determined not to be president of all Americans. He’s president of his supporters.
Tyrants create cults of personality. Trump is beyond that. He equates America with himself, and disloyalty to him with insufficient patriotism. In his mind, a giant “Trump” sign hangs over the nation. “We” are his supporters, acolytes, and toadies. “They” are the rest of us.
When everything and everyone is either pro- or anti-Trump, there’s no room for neutral expertise, professional norms, good public policy, or the rule of law.
Trump is reportedly on the brink of firing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, whom Trump suspects “might be a Democrat.” Mattis’s real sin has been to believe the military should be neutral and professional. To Trump that smacks of disloyalty.
Trump calls military generals “my” generals. He expects the FBI director, the attorney general, and the Justice Department to be “his.” He proudly points to “his” judges and justices.
Republican members of Congress are part of “his” government—unless, like Jeff Flake and the late John McCain, they’re not.
He believes the nation’s press is either for him or against him. Fox News is indubitably for him—now a virtual propaganda arm of the White House. The rest are against him even when they merely report the news.
We’re all being taken in by this Trumpian dichotomy—even those of us in the anti-Trump camp.
When Trump is the defining issue in America, he gets to set the national agenda. All major debate in this country revolves around him, his goals, and the objects of his vilification.
The Trumpification of America hardly ends if Democrats take over the House or possibly the Senate. Trump will blame them for everything that goes wrong. He’ll make up problems they’re supposedly responsible for. He’ll ridicule them and call them traitors.
He’ll do the same to anyone who shows serious interest in running for president against him in 2020.
Naturally, Democrats will want to defend themselves. Naturally, they’ll also want to attack Trump.
If they flip the House they’ll use their subpoena power to dredge up whatever dirt on him they can find—summoning his tax records, Robert Mueller, Mueller’s investigative findings—and perhaps even beginning impeachment proceedings.
Trump and his Republican enablers will fight back, condemning Democrats for weakening America, engaging in fishing expeditions and witch hunts. Trump and his lawyers will tie up the subpoenas in court, claiming executive privilege.
Aspiring Democratic candidates for president will join in the brawl.
Op-ed writers, editorial boards, and pundits will argue over the best ways for Democrats to proceed against Trump—going low or going high. Pollsters will tell us which Democratic candidate is seen as being most effective against him.
But all of this is a giant trap. It accepts and enforces Trump’s worldview—that nothing is more important than Donald Trump, that he embodies all that’s good (or bad) about America, and that our most significant choice is to be for him or against him.
It allows Trump to continue to dominate the news and occupy the center of the nation’s attention.
We’d talk about nothing else for two years. We won’t be discussing how to restore wage growth, get health insurance to all Americans, reverse climate change, or get big money out of politics.
We won’t be envisioning how a new America can widen opportunity, expand voting rights, end racism, reduce poverty, and work constructively with the rest of the world.
We won’t be aspiring to be more than we were before Trump. We’ll debate and dissect the damage done since Trump.
Of course Democrats have to fight him. But they also have to lift America beyond him.
The central question shouldn’t be whether we’re pro- or anti-Trump, or whether we go low or high in fighting him.
The question is where America should go—and what we, together, can become.