Opinion: Not the Pennsylvania Message You’d Expect, but One Heard Around the World

World is watching as America struggles with basic questions of democracy and representation

President Donald Trump spoke at a rally for Rick Saccone Saturday night. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Donald Trump spoke at a rally for Rick Saccone Saturday night. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 15, 2018 at 5:01am

The election for a congressional seat in Pennsylvania was over, yet not over, on Wednesday, with all eyes on the few hundred votes that gave Democrat Conor Lamb an initial edge over Republican Rick Saccone.

And the reckoning has only begun. Amid the hand-wringing from nervous Republicans fearing a midterm blue wave and cautious optimism from Democrats who realize November is a long way off were signs that the tensions of this campaign resonate far beyond a spot in the southwestern corner of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

You could see it in the tableau framing Donald Trump’s stem-winder of a Saturday night campaign speech, which barely mentioned candidate Saccone, and the approving crowds that did and did not represent America.

His less-than-diverse gathering of supporters cheered his words as he considered the death penalty for drug dealers, attacked the intelligence of Rep. Maxine Waters (who has called for his impeachment) and swatted at the pesky press.

Watch: Democrats’ Success in Pennsylvania 18 Not Repeatable, Ryan Says

Loading the player...

It was a message hammered home by a statement from Saccone, who threw policy out the window to say that Democrats who opposed him were energized by “hatred” for “our country,” “God” and “our president.”

This vision of America the world sees — a divisive culture war on steroids — had echoes, oddly enough, in a recent speech in France from Steve Bannon, banished from Trump world and searching for relevance across the Atlantic.

Bannon saw fertile soil on a European tour that included stops in Germany and Italy. He decried “globalists” on his global jaunt and spoke to a party congress of the French far-right National Front, saying: “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”

That did not work so well in Marine Le Pen’s race against Emmanuel Macron last year.

Bannon also praised Trump, who has continued to make headlines without help from his onetime strategist.

Setting an example

It is true that Italy, Hungary, Poland and other countries are turning rightward as fear of immigrants, societal change and economic uncertainty lead many toward the nationalist path Trump followed.

But did the lack of enthusiasm for the Trump-backed candidate in a district the president so easily carried signal that message is losing the power it once had? Is the close vote only about the quality of the candidates, turnout and money spent on ads?

Or is that visual of citizens cheering Trump’s fighting words, his musing on punishments doled out by dictators and rejection of “presidential” decorum and embrace of the primacy of his entertainment value actually setting an example of what leaders on the global stage should not do?

The world is watching as America struggles with basic questions of democracy and representation in politics and everywhere else.

While Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions take on California and its approach to immigration, both on the border and in the courts, Silicon Valley is itself divided, between its support for immigrants who fuel many of its creative pursuits, and internal resistance (and lawsuits) at a company like Google over attempts to diversify its mostly male, mostly white workforce.

The New York Times, with its “Overlooked” series of obituaries, looks to honor the pioneers whose race and gender left them often derided in life and invisible in its pages in death. National Geographic, with its current “race issue,” turns its gaze on itself, critiquing how it has covered the world, positioning people of color across the globe as exotic curiosities, rather than human beings with intelligence and agency.

In Canada, a stamp has honored Viola Desmond, arrested in 1945 for sitting in the “whites-only” section of a theater; she was a civil rights activist in a country where many denied a problem ever existed.

Something missing

In his Pennsylvania speech, President Trump bragged that he won the votes of 52 percent of women who showed up at the polls, which is not true. He actually won 41 percent of female voters; the number rises only when you take away the votes of women of color. It’s no surprise, just a confirmation of who counts and who doesn’t in his mind and his world.

It’s the issue of erasure, one the world is grappling with at this pivotal moment.

However the Pennsylvania race shakes out, we can reasonably predict how the president will spin it. If Lamb wins, Trump will take credit for the fact that the vote was close; if Saccone wins, Trump will take credit, period.

Whether Republicans running in tight races in the 2018 midterms ask Trump to campaign with them depends on whether the district in play is bright red or more purplish in hue — though the president will do what he wants to do.

The halting efforts to fill in the blank spaces of history books will continue, perhaps with the backlash that the Saccones of the world — and a GOP that does not seem interested in competing for the votes of all Americans —are counting on. (That backlash is all too evident in North Carolina, where the effort to move Confederate monuments from Capitol grounds in Raleigh to a Civil War battlefield is being met, in comments coming from as far away as California and Kansas, with calls to take down statues of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

It is clear that a little race in a district in Pennsylvania, one that is breaking apart in a few months, held an outsize amount of attention not just for what it said about 2018 contests, but also because of what the campaign rhetoric revealed about communities in this country and around the world that are fighting to stay unified — or not.

The results in that race, and on all fronts, remain uncertain.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.