ANALYSIS | What ended Monday night inside an arena in southeast Missouri began in earnest on the White House’s South Lawn on Oct. 2. That’s when President Donald Trump decided to do what has defined his presidency and three years on the political stage: He fought back.
Trump used a six-day, eight-state, 11-rally barnstorming tour to close out the midterms campaign season by going not just partisan but tribal. His campaign-ending rally in Cape Girardeau was his third stop of the day — and everywhere the president went Monday, he couldn’t stop telling anyone who would listen that the final week of the 2018 campaign reminded him of the 2016 one when he shocked the world by defeating Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“Something’s going on,” Trump said several times at his first stop of the day, in Cleveland, of his feeling — at least publicly — that Republicans are again going to defy expectations on Tuesday when voters head to the polls. “There’s something happening out there, folks,” he said later in Missouri.
Notably, Trump said similar things in the final days of his shocking 2016 presidential campaign.
But just over a month ago, things looked dire for Trump and Republicans. Polls showed big Democratic gains in the House and a Senate up for grabs. And Trump’s second Supreme Court nominee, now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, was facing sexual assault allegations and his fate was in doubt.
Trump appeared to know he had to do something. So he walked out of the Oval Office and headed straight for reporters waiting on the South Lawn as he was leaving the White House for an evening campaign rally. The president seemed to sense trouble — both in the campaign and for the Kavanaugh nomination, especially if Democrats grabbed the Senate.
So he made Senate Democrats’ expressing doubts about Kavanaugh “a rallying cry” for Republicans simply by defending his nominee.
What Trump does
It was vintage Trump. The man former campaign manager and White House chief strategist Steve Bannon once declared “a street fighter,” changed the tone of the 2018 campaign with those South Lawn comments and ones he made later that night about Kavanaugh’s first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.
“How did you get home? I don’t remember. How’d you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know,” Trump said, flailing his arms around to mock Ford as he has some of his political foes and journalists during similar events in the past.
The north Mississippi audience roared its approval. The entire campaign had changed in a span of just a few hours. And he kept it up for the next month.
Trump jetted across much of the middle of the country, stopping in places like Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Montana, Ohio and Tennessee. He took aim at Democratic candidates, lawmakers and leaders.
He warned of “angry mobs” and “radical” Democrats who, he claimed, wanted to install “socialism” and “open borders.” The latter would inevitably bring rampant crimes and a decrease in available federal benefits for American citizens, the president told crowd after crowd in arenas, high school gyms and airport hangars.
He made immigration the backbone of his final-days pitch, warning several Central American caravans approaching the U.S.-Mexico border amounts to an “invasion” force that is chock full of violent gang members and criminals without providing supporting evidence.
He accused Democrats of wanting to “turn America into Venezuela,” which plunged into an ongoing economic and political crisis stemming from unsustainable social programs launched by Hugo Chavez’s government. “I don’t think so,” he would say as the boos gave way to applause and “U-S-A!” chants.
Trump took the gloves off that October day and he didn’t let up as Election Day neared. During an interview with Fox News commentator and host Sean Hannity before the final rally, the president offered some bare-knuckle talk about Florida’s incumbent Democratic senator who is in a Toss-up race with that state’s GOP governor.
“Bill Nelson is a terrible senator,” Trump said. “He’s never called me.”
Nelson’s opponent, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, has called the president asking for what Trump values most: Money. The Sunshine State has needed federal hurricane relief funds that required presidential approval.
Trump never tried to use the midterms campaign to bring the country’s tribes together. In fact, he often did the opposite, serving as the straw stirring the volatile cocktail that is a feuding country.
On the home stretch
Instead, Trump — especially over the race’s final month — chose to orchestrate a campaign that was short on a unifying message and long on misleading statements and tribal rhetoric.
Instead, the president zeroed in on the conservative base that put him in the White House and doubled down on the kind of barbed wire-wrapped rhetoric that fired them up two years ago. And speaking of barbed wire, the president said U.S. military forces he sent to the southern border are building “barbed-wire walls” to keep those caravans out.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, was the final rally’s warm up act. It was fitting since Limbaugh for decades fueled the conservative vitriol and energy that, in many ways, helped Trump capitalize on that group’s economic and social angst two years ago.
“The bond that exists between you and everyone else who has been to a Trump rally is something every politician envies,” Limbaugh said. What’s more, he added, no one in Washington “has taken the time to learn.” The man who sits behind the “golden EIB microphone” has a point there.
There are plenty of signs Limbaugh is correct, like polls that tightened almost as soon as Trump created his “rallying cry” that October afternoon. Voters will have the final say on Tuesday — and, as always, it’s all about Trump — a referendum of sorts on his turbulent and tribal tenure.
“In a sense,” he said in Cleveland, “I am on the ticket.”
Watch: Obama — “The Character of This Country is on the Ballot”