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The Cruel Prank of the Midterms: Donald Trump Has Distorted All Meaning in Elections

Trump’s political appeal defies national tragedy and even the most spectacular humiliations. So it’s become difficult to predict whether alarmed Democrats or die-hard Trump apologists will be the most excited to vote on Tuesday.

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The final weeks before the midterm elections have formed the most politically violent month in Donald Trump’s presidency. The right-wing terrorist Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr. has been charged with mailing dozens of pipe bombs to Democratic figureheads. Those targets included Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the billionaire fundraiser George Soros, the subject of many right-wing conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic characterizations. The day after Sayoc’s arrest in Florida, right-wing terrorist Robert Gregory Bowers was arrested and charged after he opened fire on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 worshipers and wounding seven others. Donald Trump has addressed all this political violence with scripted reproach delivered through clenched teeth. Since Charlottesville, Trump has proved ambivalent about the nation’s catastrophes, be they deadly neo-Nazi rallies, school shootings, church shootings, hurricanes, or assassination attempts. The terrors are unyielding. The grief is immeasurable. Trump is cold comfort. He’s reserved all his passion for his final run of campaign rallies, where the president loudly fantasizes about violence that hasn’t even happened.

Trump doesn’t perform the sort of grief that sometimes defines presidential leadership. Under Trump, there’s been no grand, national mourning for the victims of the synagogue massacre; nor has there been (nor will there be) any great reckoning with the right-wing animus and anti-Semitism, specifically, that motivated the shooter. The president has offered few credible assurances about safety, justice, and national resolve. Briefly, the president made a strange remark about the odds that armed guards might have stopped Bowers; when he visited Pittsburgh, he was greeted by protesters and shunned by political leaders. In fairness, he’s Trump: the less he says, the better. The best he can do is nothing, quietly. The worst he can do is all that he’s good at. During a catastrophic hurricane in Florida, Trump campaigned against Senator Bob Casey in Pennsylvania. In the aftermath of an anti-Semitic massacre, he campaigned against Senator Claire McCaskill in Missouri.

To be sure, Trump does address the recent tragedies in his campaign speeches, if only to lament their distraction from the elections for the only demographic who should ever rightfully hold the president’s attention — the Republican base. “We did have two maniacs stop a momentum that was incredible,” Trump said, echoing earlier remarks he made about the mail bomber who targeted Obama, Clinton, and Soros. “Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens,” Trump tweeted, “and the momentum greatly slows - news not talking politics. Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!” In Missouri, Trump quickly turned his crowd’s attention from the Tree of Life massacre toward his own most urgent concern, the migrant caravan traveling north through Mexico — a peaceful, unarmed procession of weary civilians who, contrary to Trump’s fear-mongering, haven’t killed anyone. “We called up the military because we’re not going to let people into the country,” Trump reassured the crowd. “If you don’t want America to be overrun by masses of illegal aliens and giant caravans, you’d better vote Republican!”

The 2018 midterm elections are the first general referendum on Trump’s presidency, so routinely defined by outrage and violence. The national mood, which is pretty bleak, would normally suggest some terminal dissatisfaction with whoever’s in charge. But Trump’s political appeal defies national tragedy and even the most spectacular humiliations. So it’s become exceedingly tough for so-called experts to predict who, exactly — alarmed Democrats or die-hard Trump apologists? — will be the most excited to vote on Tuesday. Broadly, the 2018 midterm election favors the Democrats. So, too, did the 2016 presidential election. Two years later the midterm odds are as polarized as the voters themselves. It’ll either be the most devastating midterm setback the Republicans will have endured in a century, or else the Democrats will suffer yet another bewildering upset when they were too sure the Republicans were doomed.

Nearly halfway into Trump’s term, pundits still struggle to comprehend just how motivational the president can be, especially in his most dismal moments. Trump’s supporters regard his explicit callousness toward unfavorable factions — the young, the black, the brown, the Jews, and women in general — as good. Naturally, Democrats and Republicans disagree about politics; but perversely, Democrats and Republicans also disagree about the desirability of human suffering. For Democrats, Trump is the most callous and disastrous president in the modern age. The malaise that now engulfs U.S. politics is the overwhelming proof of Trump’s failure, which the whole GOP must inevitably be held accountable for at the polls. Among Republicans, Trump is a more complicated figure: repulsive to some, but exhilarating to those conservatives who clamor for more chaos, more dysfunction, more rage, and more opportunities for culmination. What would it take to demoralize a pro-Trump Republican? The past two years have yet to produce a conclusive answer despite being inarguably chaotic, mean-spirited, bloody, and bad. So the potential for demoralization seems low and illusory. The midterms seem to be a cruel prank that somehow results in a net gain in Republican senators to further fortify the president and expound on his cruelty.

It’s hard to imagine the two major parties, as polarized and radicalized as they are, fighting to some inconclusive draw. The passions are too extreme. So, too, is the practical contrast between Trumpism and a resurgent socialism. The midterms may indeed temper Republican dominance, but they’ve radicalized everything and everyone else.