Donald Trump was in Michigan on Saturday. Don’t get me wrong: Michigan is lovely in October. But he didn’t come to go apple picking, watch football, or enjoy the crisp autumn weather. Instead, he came at the behest of candidates for three of the state’s top offices. And Michigan is far from Trump’s only stop this fall. He’s been in Pennsylvania, and if plans hold, he’ll be ranting in microphones on behalf of Republicans in Arizona, Ohio, and North Carolina by election day.
These candidates aren’t running in Republican primaries, where Donald Trump’s endorsement carries weight. They’re running in general elections, where they have to compete for voters who haven’t been baptized in the MAGA slop.
Recent polling shows that two-third of independents disapprove of Trump — the voters Republicans need to turn out in November if they have any hope of winning.
So with Trump’s approval underwater, why bring him to your state? The answer says a lot about the GOP’s long game with respect to American democracy.
Let me offer my most generous interpretation first. Perhaps MAGA candidates are so deep into the hall of mirrors in which they reside that they actually believe this dude can help them win elections. They believe that his tin hat election denial, the claim that he’s being politically persecuted, or his stale brand of braggadocio can actually inspire some non-existent subterranean base to come out to the polls on their behalf.
To be fair here, one of the deepest conceptual challenges in politics is seeing beyond your own echo chamber — realizing that the positive feedback you’re getting on the trail does not translate to having more than half of the voters like you more than the other person. Perhaps the MAGA types just can’t see beyond the minority of Americans who’ve imbibed their lies.
But there’s a more sinister interpretation here. Though it takes a majority of the voters to win an election, it takes far, far fewer to undermine one. Although each of these candidates is ostensibly running to be elected to public office by way of our democracy, they are embracing a failed politician who sees his only path back to power through denying one. In doing that, Trump-embracing candidates are explicitly choosing to use their platforms to undermine the edifice of our democracy rather than try to succeed within it.
In that respect, it’s hard not to view these midterms as anything but a win-win proposition for a GOP hellbent on power — not through, but in spite of our democracy. If they lose, they’ll leverage their losses and claim foul play to feed their base even more of the grievance on which they are campaigning. And if, despite their embrace of an anti-democratic demagogue, they happen to win, then they’ll happily claim victory and leverage their positions to undo our democracy just the same.
“This is the most important election in our lifetimes” is a tired cliché at this point. But it’s true — and it will continue to be true every election for the foreseeable future. That’s because the GOP’s brinksmanship is like an automated ante-raising machine. Win or lose, they raise the stakes.
It also means that winning is not enough. We have to win, and we have to govern. The Republican grievance machine works because too many people believe that government does not. It runs on broken promises and unmet needs, aiming the insecurity it creates not at the very Republican party that has, for decades, undermined our society’s ability to deliver basic resources to Americans — but at Democrats who’ve promised to overcome it.
Democrats have to get serious about delivering what we promise: an educational system befitting our children’s brains, affordable, accessible housing, clean air and water, basic rights over your own body, the ability to take a few weeks off when you, a child, or a parent get sick or if you have a kid, childcare that allows you to work without having to sacrifice that whole check.
The GOP is jeering its base to ask what the point of elections even is. Our answer must come in demonstrating the value of winning them.