Politicians are self-important creatures. Many have a savior complex. So it's really not surprising that they habitually overplay the importance of elections, especially ones they are contesting. Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, John Kennedy — all of them tried to coax voters to schlep to the polls by declaring their presidential runs the "most important election of our lifetime." Usually that's just not the case.
But this Tuesday is different.
The 2018 midterm elections are a referendum on Trumpism, the noxious brand of restrictionism, protectionism, and race-baiting that President Trump represents. And unless the electorate roundly defeats Trumpism, it will fester and infect the body politic for a very long time.
Trump's apologists on the right argue that if you look past Trump's foul personality and examine his actual policies, he's really not that bad. He has cut taxes, deregulated the economy and made solid judicial appointments. He may be belligerent, but he hasn't started any big new wars; he may call the media the "enemy of the people," but he hasn't jailed dissidents and dissenters; he may talk tough on immigration and border security, but so did Bill Clinton. They also think his vile blood-and-soil nationalist rhetoric has nothing to do with the recent synagogue shooting, and those who claim otherwise are simply suffering from "Trump Derangement Syndrome." As far as they're concerned, America's political system has managed to temper Trump's worst authoritarian instincts and harness his better ones. Hence, not much is at stake in this election. The republic won't collapse regardless of the outcome.
This is just head-in-the-sand denialism. The truth is obvious: Trump is a uniquely horrid president who has already had a transformative effect on America's discourse, institutions, policy, and politics — and not for the better. It might sound like a cliché, but he is changing "who we are."
Trump blares racism from a bullhorn — calling Hispanic immigrants "rapists" and "criminals" and mounting a last-minute fear campaign depicting the approaching migrant caravan of helpless asylum seekers as invaders who would go on a "cop-killing spree." The Trump administration tears suckling infants from the breasts of migrant moms and puts them in detention camps thousands of miles away. Trump has threatened to scrap birthright citizenship by executive order. He has mounted an all-out administrative assault on legal immigration, pardoned Arizona's brutal sheriff Joe Arpaio, and is deploying 15,000 military troops to stop a peaceful migrant caravan.
Trump started a trade war with the Middle Kingdom by imposing hundreds of billions in tariffs, all while threatening to tear down global rules of trade that keep the worst protectionism of other countries in check. He rails against the institution of a free press and openly applauds violence against reporters and political opponents. He has stomped on other bedrock checks and balances too, including relentlessly attacking executive agencies such as the FBI because they have the temerity to investigate him — never mind that keeping a check on public corruption is one of the few vital functions they serve.
Trump's predecessors have pursued some of these wrong-headed policies. But he is a bad combination of all of them, taking things to a whole new level of grotesqueness. And just because Trump can't deliver on his ludicrous threats — such as scrapping birthright citizenship by executive order — doesn't mean they have no impact. At the very minimum, they inflame public opinion and shift the Overton window for legislative nastiness. Indeed, literally hours after Trump floated his idea on twitter, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham pledged to introduce legislation to end this "absurd policy" along the same lines as the proposed executive order.
Nor will it do to claim that Trump's incendiary rhetoric against immigrants, minorities, and others plays no role in inciting violence against them. Political leaders wield enormous powers to temper — or incite — the hot passions of their followers. If 9/11 did not result in the widespread bloodshed of Muslims in America, it was largely because George W. Bush declared that Islam was not America's enemy and visited a mosque within days of the attack. If blacks in South Africa did not go after their white rulers with pitchforks and swords when apartheid ended, it was in no small part because of Nelson Mandela's call for forgiveness and healing.
It is willful blindness to maintain that social media and other mobs aren't affected by verbal incitement. Is it such a stretch to suggest that when Trump builds an electoral strategy around depicting migrants as "invaders" — terminology borrowed from the right's fever swamp — and "cop killers," some worked up Minuteman vigilante won't feel like a hero when he takes matters into his own hands? Words are not conduct but they are meant to affect conduct (or they are meaningless and pundits should pack up and find another line of business). Our country has a bedrock — and noble — commitment to the First Amendment that gives officials legal immunity to throw verbal matches into a political tinderbox. But we should still be alarmed when they do so.
Sadly, Trump's own party has done nothing to rein him in. To the contrary, he is systematically remaking the GOP in his own image. Decent Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan who don't have the stomach to take him on are quitting politics. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who had the temerity to stand up to him, is being driven out. Trump's presidential challengers, like Sen. Graham, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Sen. Ted Cruz, who used to be his fiercest critics, are meekly falling in line. Meanwhile, the misnamed House Freedom Caucus, whose entire reason for existence was to stand up against government spending and for fiscal responsibility, in the face of an unprecedented trillion-dollar deficit, is demanding more spending on a useless wall or they'll shut down the government. More frighteningly, the new breed of Republicans running for Congress are touting an overtly Trumpist message.
The only way to quickly — and surely — return the Grand Old Party to its senses and consign Trumpism to the dustbin of history is by defeating it at the polls — and decisively so. (Trying to get rid of it by impeaching Trump either in Congress or by invoking the 25th Amendment, as some have suggested, will actually do the opposite.) This means that, at the very minimum, Republicans should lose the House and make no gains in the Senate on Tuesday. It will also mean throwing out Republicans in state gubernatorial and legislative races around the country.
If the result is mixed and its message ambiguous, political entrepreneurs — certainly among Republicans but also Democrats — will be tempted to emulate Trump's formula of racism, immigrant-bashing, and trade-busting for a very long time.
This is the most important election in our lifetimes. Don't let Trump denialists tell you otherwise.