After weeks of crisis and scandal, Donald Trump was cut a break by Hurricane Harvey. Several million people’s pain provided him with some temporary relief from the DC presure cooker, if not a small measure of political gain by heading out to inspect (from afar, as it turns out) the damage wrought in South Texas by the mega-storm. He got to look presidential while still being his self-centered self, since he spent his time in Texas talking not about people suffering but about how great the relief effort was and how historic the recovery would be–the best ever!
Hurricane Harvey provided him with a convenient deflection from last week. What with his continuing support for Confederate iconography, his rant at the Phoenix rally that he was asked not to hold and his pardoning of the racist cop Joe Arpaio, he needed a break from critical media coverage. But even his response to the storm could not cloud the fact that last week he revealed what appears to be his strategy for the 2018 US midterm congressional elections, where all of the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate are up for grabs.
Trump has clearly been advised to double down on his 33 percent core base of “law and order,” “traditional values”” supporters. His consiglieri believe that his full-thoroated appeal to this base will force the GOP congressional caucus up for re-election to think twice before opposing him on matters of domestic security and “values.” That includes those in his party who oppose funding his Wall and/or the more draconian aspects of his anti-immigration platform, to say nothing of a myriad of cultural topics like the military transgender ban and removal of Confederate symbols from public places. His strategy is to force the GOP congressional caucus to support his agenda fully or risk his openly courting primary opponents who will. He has already spoken favorably of primary opponents to several GOP Representatives and Senators, including in Arizona where Arpaio is rumored to be considering a possible congressional run. He has the support of powerful financial benefactors like the infamous Koch brothers, who are willing to fund primary advertising campaigns against Republican incumbents who do not toe the Trump line. The idea is to put the fear of that Trump base into the Republican caucus, especially in those Red states where his support remains strong and where Republican political control is unchallenged.
The goal is to publicly squeeze GOP critics as hard as possible on “values” and security in order to get them to cave to and support his policy demands. It is harsh but effective, especially in those dyed in the wool Red states–IF his calculus that just a 33% core support concentrated in a handful of Red states is enough to force the GOP congressional caucus to acquiesce to his demands and IF further scandals and crisies do not continue to erode his political capital to the point that he becomes expendable. If he is right, then congressional Republicans will go with him. If he is wrong–and next week can and will bring another scandal and the hurricane will eventually move off the national headlines–then his courting of racists and bigots and flouting the conventions of presidential behavior might come back to bite him.
The bottom line of his midterm election strategy, particuarly in Red states, is the upping of the ante on any GOP congressperson who dares to critique him by publicly calling for their removal in the primaries. He is going to rest his case on their support or lack thereof of traditional values (read: white supremacy, but as an Anglo-Saxon Protestant national cultural theme rather than as a Klan or Nazi meme) and domestic security (the Wall, dealing to illegal “alien” criminals, Muslim terrorists in the midst, support for law enforcement, etc.). Just like the possibility that the pardoning of the criminal Sherriff Arpaio was a trial run for is pardoning of conspirators caught up in the various Russia investigation, the tactic might work, or it might not. All depends on how Republicans in Congress react.
This is part of what can be called a bifurcated or two-pronged strategy that has begun to emerge in the White House over the last few weeks. On foreign policy, the shift is towards a neo-realist approach led by the retired and active duty generals who comprise his national security team and who appear to be reading from the same book (if not same page) as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The thrust is to bring some measure of rationality and predictability to US foreign policy decision-making guided by more narrowly construed notions of national interest, regardless of what the president says in unscripted moments.
On the domestic front the ghost of Steve Bannon still haunts the halls of the West Wing while his presence at Brietbart News serves as an external buttress reinforcing the Trump domestic agenda against any attempt at moderation of its national populist principles. The plan to double down on the core base of Trump’s support with appeals to law and order and ‘traditional values” is straight out of his national populist playbook. So is the economic nationalism displayed by Trump’s ongoing fulminations about NAFTA, which for him is much less about the movement of goods across borders and much more about who is making and moving them. Most importantly, the hard turn against GOP critics in the run up to the 2018 elections is quintescently Bannon in its scorched earth approach to opponents, including those from within the GOP: destroy them and sully their legacies in order to create a new movement that eschews compromise in the pursuit of Trumpian “principles.”
In sum, Trump started out this week better than he did last week, thanks to a natural disaster at least in part influenced by the climate change/global warming effects that he says are a bogus Chinese invention. One immediate effect is that petrol prices rose a full ten percent in two days thanks to the shutting down of the Texas oil refineries in advance of the storm and their continuing closure due to its effects. This market response has reinforced Trump’s calls for more gas and oil exploration in national parks and wilderness reserves, more pipelines from Canada, and more fracking in places where shale oil is believed to be present. For him, the answer to the negative impact of climate change is to again, without any hint of irony, double down on his core support for the fossil fuel industry.
Trump’s emerging midterm election strategy is a make or break proposition for both him and the GOP. Either he wins or he loses, because he is forcing the GOP to be with him full stop or be treated as the enemy. Given the uncertainties about the Russia investigations, tensions with North Korea, the daily dose of twitinsanity emanating from his phone and the spectre of more scandals and crises to come, the situation, as Gramsci once noted, “becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic â€˜men of destiny.”
Who these forces and men are, as well as the real possibility of violent solutions, remains a matter of conjecture. But there is one thing that is certain in the US today: the crisis is real and Trump’s response to it, as evident in his midterm election strategy, could well bring it to a head.