In the run-up to Tuesday’s midterms, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) faced mounting condemnation over his openly white-supremacist politics. King has a long record of demonizing minorities, fulminating over the decline of white “civilization” and courting extremists who peddle racist conspiracy theories about the “replacement” of white Europeans by nonwhite immigrants.
King also sparked ire after meeting members of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, which was founded by a former SS officer and has since struggled to shed links to its neo-fascist past. He defended fraternizing with them with a matter-of-fact observation: “If they were in America pushing the platform that they push, they would be Republicans,” he said.
There are many Republicans who would bristle at King’s contention, but they are a waning force. President Trump has been the catalyst of a dramatic realignment — or “a repolarization of politics,” as my colleagues Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey put it — that branded the GOP as the faction of white nationalist rage.
The reaction to the midterms in Europe reflected the continent’s own divisions. Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice president, saw the Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives as encouragement for Europe’s own liberal establishment, which is preparing for a far-right assault in next year’s elections for the European Union Parliament.
“Inspired by voters in the U.S. who chose hope over fear, civility over rudeness, inclusion over racism, equality over discrimination,” Timmermans wrote in a Twitter post. “They stood up for their values. And so will we.”
But Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini hailed the Senate gains made by Republicans, who picked off a number of vulnerable Democrats in Trump-friendly states.
“Congratulations to President Trump for the seats he won at the Senate and those he held in crucial states against everyone: left-wing journalists, actors, singers, directors and pseudo-intellectuals,” said Salvini, nursing the grievance and resentment that fuels far-right politics on both sides of the Atlantic.
Trump pushed the same fearful message about immigration that has defined his agenda since he ran for president. He shirked the counsel of Hill insiders and establishment Republican politicians, including outgoing Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), that he focus on the strong economy and other positive stories.
“The president became upset when his campaign produced an ad that focused on economic gains through the eyes of a mother hoping her daughter would succeed, surprising his own political advisers,” reported The Washington Post’s Scherer and Dawsey.
“Trump,” they wrote, “wanted to talk immigration.” He conjured a fictional migrant “invasion” out of reports that a bedraggled caravan of asylum seekers was slowly making its way toward the United States. He ostentatiously deployed active-duty troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and attacked Democrats and immigrants with a TV ad so nakedly racist that even Fox News pulled it from the airwaves.
On Wednesday, Trump showed no contrition for the toxic effect of his rhetoric, which critics say fueled a spate of recent right-wing terrorist attacks. Indeed, he took credit for Republican victories and mocked Republicans who lost their elections because they refused his “embrace.” White House aides also cheered Trump’s ability to mobilize votes in largely white areas, which helped fuel the gains in the Senate and high-profile wins in the Ohio and Florida governor’s races.
“It speaks badly of our country that such unscrupulous tactics paid off in so many races,” wrote Post columnist Max Boot. “The fact that the GOP went there confirms its transformation from a Reagan-Ryan conservative party into a white-nationalist party in Trump’s image. If you think the immigrant-bashing was offensive this year, imagine what it will be like in two years when Trump himself is on the ballot.”
For Trump, as for Europe’s far right, the game is polarization: A galvanized minority of voters is preferable to an apathetic majority. But unlike in Europe, where parliamentary politics usually keep the far right out of government, the nature of the U.S. political system means that a far-right GOP can still wield huge amounts of power. And with Trump having staved off the worst of the Democratic wave in 2018 using racial animus, there are justifiable fears that the president and his allies will turn even more extreme in 2020.
So we may hear more of the racist robo-calls that Florida voters received mocking Andrew Gillum, the black Democratic candidate for governor. There may be more candidates like Trump-endorsed Ron DeSantis, Gillum’s victorious opponent, who warned voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for Gillum. There could be another wave of anti-Semitic campaign ads featuring Jewish candidates clutching bunches of cash. And there will certainly be more attempts to tighten voting laws in ways that hurt minority groups more than anyone else.
The people mobilizing against such divisive politics hope that revulsion to racism will yield its own electoral dividend. “We know that racism divides people, but we have also seen that racial justice also unites and motivates people,” Rashad Robinson, the president of the racial justice group Color of Change, told The Post. “This is not a matter of Trump’s frame being the more compelling one. It’s about his platform being the larger one.”
But that presidential platform does matter. Trump has taken the culture-war tactics of Europe’s far right into the American mainstream, something Republican leaders in recent decades might only furtively have attempted. And Trump may be no aberration.
“The harsh truth is this: Racism often works. Cross-racial coalitions for economic justice are the exception in American history. Mobilizing white people to protect their racial dominance is the norm,” wrote the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart. “The lesson of 2018 is that American politics is not reverting to ‘normal.’ In many ways, Trumpism is normal. It’s not Trump who is running uphill against American tradition, it’s the people who try — bravely but with mixed success — to stop him.”