WASHINGTON – With the approach of this year’s midterm elections in the United States, domestic terrorism is starting to dominate the political landscape. First, barely two weeks before Election Day, an angry supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump began sending 14 bombs to prominent Democrats and others whom Trump has frequently attacked. (None of the bombs exploded.) Then things became much worse, with the murder, on a Saturday, of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Today, a polarized and anxious American public finds itself with a president totally unsuited to, and not very interested in, comforting the nation, much less trying to lead it away from the hate and deadly partisanship that he has stoked.
Had the 14 crude bombs, which the FBI called “potentially destructive devices,” worked as intended, the bomb maker could have killed or gravely injured a who’s who of Trump adversaries. The list included two former presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama), Hillary Clinton, former Attorney General Eric Holder; a former CIA director; a former director of National Intelligence; two likely Democratic presidential candidates in 2020; a black congresswoman whom Trump frequently describes as “low IQ” (a common racist charge); two prominent Jewish billionaire philanthropists, one of whom, George Soros, is a frequent target of Trump and the subject of various right-wing conspiracy fantasies; and the actor Robert De Niro (who began his speech at this year’s Tony Awards ceremony by declaring, “F—k Trump”).
Though Trump had frequently singled out many of the bomber’s targets at his rallies — still attacking Hillary Clinton, his election opponent in 2016, for example, and then smiling as his audience chanted “Lock her up” — Trump’s defenders tried to throw the spotlight elsewhere. The mail bombs, they claimed, were a “false flag” operation by the left, with some of the Democrats even sending the bombs to themselves in order to blame Trump.
So it was highly inconvenient for true believers when the would-be bomber turned out to be a fanatical Trump supporter who lives in Florida and drives a white van covered in hate-filled depictions of his targets. U.S. law-enforcement agencies — another frequent target of Trump — are extremely good at tracking down miscreants: The suspect was arrested four days after the first bomb was discovered in Soros’s mailbox.
The most disheartening aspect of the entire episode was Trump’s utter incapacity as a national leader. But that should surprise no one. How could a president who has thrived politically on dividing the American people, who has been spewing hate, sowing resentment, and at times even encouraging violence at his rallies, suddenly be — or even pretend to be — a healer? In fact, Trump’s pattern of incitement and routine denunciations of the media as “the enemy of the people” had convinced many that some of his followers might resort to violence against members of the press.
The day after the discovery of the bombs sent to the Clintons and the Obamas, among others, a subdued Trump read a prepared statement at a prescheduled White House ceremony, condemning “acts or threats of political violence” and saying that the nation must unify.
It didn’t last. By that evening, at a rally in Wisconsin, he was making fun of his “trying to be nice” act and blamed the media for the violence. And soon he was back to whipping up fear of a caravan of refugees from Honduras. Though still roughly 1,600 km from the U.S. border, Trump portrayed the refugees as an imminent national security threat, warning, without evidence, that “Middle Easterners” were among them.
Trump’s rallies are now almost a daily event, and his lies are even more frequent than before. With the entire House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate to be chosen on Nov. 6, the upcoming midterm election is widely regarded as the most consequential in memory, perhaps ever. The Republicans’ two-year lock on the entire U.S. government — the House, the Senate, the presidency, and, with the recent addition of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court — could be broken.
The midterm election following the election of a new president is often considered a verdict on the incumbent, and his party usually loses strength, particularly in the House. But Trump has made the midterms about himself to an unprecedented degree. He tells audiences that though he’s not on the ballot, they should vote as if he were (though his approval ratings are in the low 40s).
It has long been believed that the Democrats are more likely to win the House than the Senate, because several of the Senate seats in play are held by Democrats in traditionally conservative states. Trump’s determination, or anxiety, that Republicans maintain control of both chambers is understandable. Should the Democrats take over the House, newly empowered committee chairmen, armed with subpoenas, will launch investigations of a broad range of administration actions and agencies, where extensive corruption is suspected.
But the real, almost palpable, fear on Trump’s part is that a Democratic-controlled House will focus all manner of investigations on him personally: his acceptance of constitutionally forbidden “emoluments” from foreign countries; his failure to separate himself sufficiently from the family business; his tax returns; his unauthorized foreign wars in Yemen and Syria; and of course his official and private dealings with Russia. At least the House is likely to have the conclusions of Special Counsel Robert Mueller to consider. In other words, no more lapdog Congress.
But if the Republicans maintain control of the Senate, there will be limits on what the Democrats can achieve. Even if the House were to impeach Trump — no sure thing — convicting him in the Senate would be extremely difficult. Whether a Democratic House would even proceed in that direction has been the subject of intra-party debate.
The nightmare election possibility for the Democrats is continued Republican control of both chambers. In that case, Trump will feel vindicated and more liberated than ever. He might then fire a raft of officials, treat immigrants still more harshly, and try to shut down Mueller’s investigation of his campaign’s possible collusion with the Kremlin and Trump’s probable obstruction of justice.
The conventional wisdom may prevail, with the Democrats winning the House but not the Senate. But the polls have been fluctuating. And since Trump’s stunning election victory in 2016, most observers have become more cautious about predicting outcomes.
Elizabeth Drew is a contributing editor to The New Republic. ©Project Syndicate, 2018