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Trump’s Midterm Paranoia

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, New York Times
Trump’s Midterm Paranoia

President Donald Trump began the week, as is his wont, by having a Twitter fit about the continuing Russia investigation.

“As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?” Trump groused. “In the meantime, the never ending Witch Hunt, led by 13 very Angry and Conflicted Democrats (& others) continues into the midterms!”

The monarchical grandeur of Trump’s assertion that he has the power to pardon himself raised eyebrows and prompted sputtering among his critics, but it shouldn’t really have shocked anyone. It has long been clear that Trump confuses the role and powers of the president with those of a king. His legal team, regrettably, seems to be actively fueling this confusion, as revealed in the recently leaked memos that it sent to the special counsel, Robert Mueller, the theme of which more or less boils down to the Nixonian musing: “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."

Arguably more noteworthy, and more troubling, is the president’s emerging effort to pre-emptively place the blame for what promises to be a tough election cycle for congressional Republicans on what he now regularly denounces as the partisan, “rigged,” “unconstitutional” machinations of Mueller and his investigative team. Message to the nation: Don’t blame me if my party takes a beating in November. The Witch Hunters are busy manipulating the system.

Trump began test-driving this exercise in buck-passing in earnest last week, with a classic executive-time tweet on Tuesday morning: “The 13 Angry Democrats (plus people who worked 8 years for Obama) working on the rigged Russia Witch Hunt, will be MEDDLING with the midterm elections, especially now that Republicans (stay tough!) are taking the lead in Polls. There was no Collusion, except by the Democrats!”

With this assertion, Trump is going for a twofer: He is once again trying to delegitimize the special counsel’s investigation and at the same time is laying the groundwork to dismiss the results of the November elections as having been corrupted by the “MEDDLING” of Mueller & Co.

It’s not hard to grasp why Trump might be feeling uneasy about his party’s fortunes. In American politics, midterm elections tend to be a referendum on the sitting president. When a leader’s approval rating sits below 50 percent, as Trump’s has so solidly remained, his party typically loses seats in Congress. And that’s absent such extreme circumstances as a special counsel inquiry raising questions about awkward issues like collusion and obstruction of justice.

There are many ways a president could seek to grapple with such a situation. Riling up one’s political base is a time-honored tradition, and certainly Trump’s new pet rant about 13 angry Democrats is designed to inflame. But such mundane partisan baiting isn’t enough for him. When this president senses that the prevailing winds may not be blowing in his favor, he has basically one response: trash the system. Certainly, this move was vividly on display at the tail end of the 2016 race, which everyone — including Trump — assumed he was going to lose. Thus his tweet from Oct. 15, 2016:

“Hillary Clinton should have been prosecuted and should be in jail. Instead she is running for president in what looks like a rigged election.”

This was far from a tossed-off, isolated accusation. In the closing days of the campaign, Trump repeatedly, and ominously, peddled the wholly unsubstantiated theory that the election was being rigged and that the country could find itself torn apart if Clinton won. (His pal Roger Stone went further, promising a “blood bath” if Democrats were to “steal” the race.) During the final presidential debate, Trump refused to say that he would accept the voting results. (“I’ll keep you in suspense.”) The next day, at a rally in Ohio, he cheekily vowed, “I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election — if I win."

Faced with the possibility of failure, Trump was not content simply to trash his opponent. He felt moved to sow doubt about the integrity of the entire electoral process.

One might imagine that pushing the idea that the fix was in would have proved problematic when Trump wound up winning the election. Not so. The new president promptly shifted gears and began arguing that mass voter fraud on behalf of the Democrats had occurred, and that was why he failed to win the popular vote. In Trump’s new, improved version of events, the race had been fixed; it just hadn’t been fixed enough to stop him. So wedded to this narrative was the president that he formed an entire voter-fraud commission dedicated to validating his conspiracy theory. (It couldn’t.)

To be fair, politics isn’t the only area where Trump is eager to burn down the system in order to protect his own interests — or at least salve his own ego. Back in his reality-TV days, he was known to whine about how “The Apprentice” would have won boatloads of awards if only the Emmys weren’t so terribly “unfair” and all about “politics.” Delegitimization is Trump’s go-to move, to be used whenever the occasion (read: potential disappointment) arises.

But whining about getting stiffed by Emmy voters is one thing. Undermining the public’s faith in key democratic institutions and processes is quite another. In the hierarchy of Trump toxicity, this may be the most insidious.

It is, unfortunately, also central to his political message. At the core of what Trump is selling is the idea that all of government and politics and culture are rotten, and that only he can be trusted to get things back on track. But on those occasions when he fails to deliver, don’t look for him to accept responsibility. He’ll just find another reason to blame the system.

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