There are two ways to win an election: There is speaking the truth on the issues, making your best case to the voters and broadening one's appeal to as large an audience as possible. Or there is lying, getting in the gutter and appealing to hate, fear and the baser instincts of one's base.
When President Donald Trump decided to call Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum a "thief" on Twitter and a "stone-cold thief" on Fox News, he chose the latter. This is what we have come to expect from a president who has built his career on sowing racial division and has placed all his bets on white nationalism as a winning midterm electoral strategy. But it is disappointing and detestable nonetheless.
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"In Florida there is a choice between a Harvard/Yale educated man named @RonDeSantisFL who has been a great Congressman and will be a great Governor - and a Dem who is a thief and who is Mayor of poorly run Tallahassee, said to be one of the most corrupt cities in the Country!" Trump tweeted. Gillum immediately responded: "On Twitter there is a choice between having the courage to @ the person you are trash talking, or not. @realDonaldTrump is howling because he's weak. Florida, go vote today."
Gillum, who would become Florida's first African-American governor, is running against Ron DeSantis, who until recently was a member of Congress. DeSantis won the GOP primary by modeling himself as a Trump acolyte, and since that time, he has used racist dog whistles, telling Floridians not to "monkey this up" by voting for his opponent. In addition, he addressed ACT For America, an anti-Muslim hate group, making statements that played to fears about refugees and immigrants. Meanwhile, racist robocalls to Florida voters, complete with jungle and chimpanzee sounds, refer to Gillum as a "negro." An Idaho-based white supremacist website and podcast called "Road to Power" paid for the robocalls.
As one of the original promoters of birtherism -- the conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama was born in a foreign country and is not a US citizen -- Trump is no stranger to race-baiting, dehumanizing and criminalizing black and brown people for political gain. He called for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of minority men who were wrongfully convicted of rape and doubled down when DNA evidence overturned their convictions. More recently, the President called Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California a "low IQ person" and his former aide Omarosa Manigault Newman a "dog." He also said Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia, is "crime loving" and "totally unqualified."
Now, two years after a campaign that sowed racial division and with two years of racially offensive policies ranging from the Muslim ban to the detention of Latino migrant children at the southern border, Trump and his GOP minions are engaging in a midterm strategy that Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii called a "toxic racist stew." In an effort to energize the base after failing to build the wall and after the GOP failed to sell the tax cuts and the economy or kill Obamacare, the self-proclaimed nationalist has made this a migrant caravan election, seizing on the journey of immigrants and asylum-seekers from Central America to conjure images of George Soros-funded foreign invaders overtaking the border to spread violence and disease. Trump, who called Mexicans rapists and murderers during his presidential campaign, now posts videos on Twitter depicting caravans of criminals rushing toward the border.
Robert Bowers, the alleged mass murderer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, agreed with the anti-Semitic and nativist messaging that Trump apparently believes is a winning plan for the election. This could explain why Trump stood alone, without any other government officials, Republicans or Democrats, when he visited Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
Then there's Trump's proposed unconstitutional executive order to end birthright citizenship, which is a dangerous stunt that invokes repeal of the 14th Amendment, one of the Reconstruction amendments enacted by Republicans after slavery to guarantee US citizenship to everyone born in the country. A president cannot change the Constitution by executive order -- and in this case, punish people of color in the process -- but perhaps a conservative Supreme Court would oblige.
It is no secret that there is much at stake in this midterm election, which is perhaps the most important election in generations and arguably a most consequential contest on the federal level for the future of this democracy. Elections in key battleground states, such as Florida, are important because party control of a state government determines the drawing of electoral maps and the ability to push a particular agenda on the local level. Certainly, Trump is making a calculation that the prospect of Andrew Gillum, a black governor of a Southern state, would signal national demographic changes and scare his white nationalist base to the polls.
Trump's reputation is on the line. The GOP, a ruling party appealing to a shrinking, monochrome base of conservative supporters, is pushing unpopular policies and the toxicity of division and distraction. Republican Party losses in state and federal races will embarrass the President and mark the rejection of Trumpism. Loss of the House and/or the Senate would spell "game over" for the Republicans, a check on a president unable to thwart the Mueller investigation or stop Congressional hearings on corruption and collusion by his administration.
At a Wednesday rally for DeSantis and Senate candidate Gov. Rick Scott in Florida, Trump called the citizenship clause of the Constitution a "crazy policy," and told the crowd that "illegal immigrants are not subject to the jurisdiction of the United States." During the rally, the crowd shouted "USA!" and "CNN sucks!" and directed its anger towards Gillum with chants of, "Lock him up!"
"I heard @realDonaldTrump ran home to @FoxNews to lie about me," Gillum tweeted. "But as my grandmother told me — never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it. So ignore him and vote, Florida!" Whether Trump can withstand a blue wave by whipping up the base of Kool-Aid drinkers with dirty tricks and stoking fear of the "other" will be put to the test on Election Day.