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Trump Closes Out a Campaign Built on Fear, Anger and Division
Image
President Trump at a rally on Monday afternoon in Cleveland.CreditCreditDoug
Mills/The New York Times
By Peter Baker, Michael D. Shear and Katie Rogers
Nov. 5, 2018

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CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. — President Trump on Monday closed out an us-
against-them midterm election campaign that was built on dark themes of fear,
nationalism and racial animosity in an effort to salvage Republican control of
Congress for the remaining two years of his term.

Mr. Trump’s fiery, invective-filled campaigning produced what may be the most
polarized midterm contest in modern times as he played to tribal rifts in American
society in a way that no president has done since before the civil rights era. The
divisions exposed and expanded over the past few weeks seem certain to last well
beyond Election Day.

On Tuesday, voters will choose a new House, decide one-third of the seats in the
Senate and select new governors for battleground states that will be critical to the
2020 presidential campaign. On the line for the president will be his ability to
legislate, build his promised border wall, appoint new judges and ultimately set the
stage to run for a second term.

More than most midterms, this election became a referendum on Mr. Trump, as he
himself has told his audiences it would be. The president’s energetic rallies appear
to have bolstered Republicans who were trying to match Democratic fervor, rooted
in antipathy for Mr. Trump. Even before Election Day, 36 million ballots were
cast, with early voting higher than four years ago in 25 states and the District of
Columbia.

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Democrats appeared poised to recapture control of the House and governors’


mansions in key Midwestern states, but Republicans were confident they would
hold onto their razor-thin 51-to-49 majority in the Senate and possibly even build
on it. A split decision could set the stage for two years of partisan warfare led by
subpoena-powered Democratic committee leaders intent on investigating
everything from the president’s taxes to Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election.

[Meet the Democratic leaders whose House committees could torment President
Trump.]

Mr. Trump spent Monday barnstorming the Midwest on behalf of allies in close
races, drawing loud and enthusiastic crowds of thousands. At rallies in Cleveland;
Fort Wayne, Ind.; and finally here in Cape Girardeau, his remarks were laced with
his usual acerbic attacks on his adversaries — “radical,” “left-wing socialists,”
“corrupt,” “the Democrat mob” — and accusations that Democrats would raise
taxes, destroy Medicare and take over the American health care system.

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“The Democrat agenda will deliver a socialist nightmare,” Mr. Trump said in Fort
Wayne.
But he again reserved his most vitriolic language for immigration, repeatedly
prompting loud boos as he warned that if Democrats win, they would invite
murderers to come into the United States to kill men, women and children.

“Democrats are inviting caravan after caravan, illegal immigrants to flood into our
country,” Mr. Trump boomed in Cleveland. He falsely said that Democrats want to
give health care benefits to undocumented immigrants and are openly encouraging
undocumented immigrants to vote.

Led by President Barack Obama, who has attacked his successor in a sharper, more
sustained way than any former president in decades, Democrats sought to make the
vote not just a decision on immigration, health care and other issues, but a test of
the nation’s values.

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“The character of this country is on the ballot,” Mr. Obama, his voice hoarse from
days of campaigning, said during an appearance on Monday in Virginia on behalf
of Senator Tim Kaine and Jennifer Wexton, a top House prospect.

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Mr. Trump has generated overflow crowds of supporters at rallies leading up to the
midterm elections.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
“Who we are is on the ballot,” Mr. Obama said. “What kind of politics we expect
is on the ballot. How we conduct ourselves in public life is on the ballot. How we
treat other people is on the ballot.”

Long before Mr. Trump, presidents have waged fierce campaigns during midterm
elections, often demonizing the other side. When he was in office, Mr. Obama
painted Republicans as zealots ready to sacrifice Medicare, education and other
priorities on the alter of tax cuts for the rich. President George W. Bush accused
Democrats of being willing to wave the white flag of surrender to terrorists.

But Mr. Trump has gone even further, not only taking on individual Democratic
officeholders by name, which most presidents avoid, but also ridiculing them and
insulting them with playground-style taunts. Describing himself as a “nationalist,”
Mr. Trump has vilified immigrants, both legal and illegal, in racially charged
language that was once considered unacceptable in national politics.

“What you didn’t have” in past midterms “was a systematic and very personally
addressed series of attacks and very inflammatory and frankly untrue images and
arguments being used,” said Anita Dunn, a Democratic consultant working on
races in Ohio and elsewhere. “What’s most interesting about it of course is it is in
many ways a strategy that is designed to exacerbate his biggest negatives.”

Democratic strategists predicted that it would backfire. “The president’s campaign


efforts over the last two weeks should be counted as an in-kind contribution to the
Democratic Party,” said Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic
“super PAC.” “Instead of allaying the fears of many suburban and exurban voters,
he confirmed everything that Democrats have been saying about him for two years
at the same time he was motivating our base.”

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But Mr. Trump’s supporters cheered him on, embracing a leader they said was
finally taking on the cosseted elites and guarding the country against outsiders.
Advisers to the president said his foes take his campaign rally language too
literally; as outrageous as it might seem, it is more entertainment, intended to
generate a crowd reaction.

“The challenge for Republicans in a midterm election when you control everything
is a lot of your voters are complacent,” said Marc Short, a former White House
legislative director under Mr. Trump. “Trump has the challenge of how do I get my
people who maybe don’t love Republicans in Congress to turn out. There’s
evidence to show that he’s making progress in that.”

Asked by reporters on Monday if the elections were turning as much on his style of
leadership as anything else, the president said, “I don’t think so, but, I mean, I’m
willing to accept that.”

He made no effort to distance himself from the harshness of his campaign,


including an advertisement it produced that was deemed racist and was ultimately
rejected by several networks, including his favorite, Fox News, as too offensive to
air. “A lot of things are offensive,” Mr. Trump said. “Your questions are offensive
a lot of times.”

In an interview released later in the day, however, Mr. Trump expressed some
regret for the tenor of his two years in office. “I would like to have a much softer
tone,” he told Sinclair Broadcasting, attributing his no-holds-barred style to a
desire to get things done.

He suggested he could change after the midterm. “I would love to get along, and I
think after the election, a lot of things can happen,” he said. “But right now they
are in their mode and we are in our mode. And you know, if you’re criticized, you
have to hit back, or you should.”

Image

Mr. Trump has declared that the election will be a referendum on him, and his
campaign strategy itself became one of the biggest issues.CreditDoug Mills/The
New York Times
Mr. Trump used the final day of the campaign to raise the possibility of voter
fraud. “Law Enforcement has been strongly notified to watch closely for any
ILLEGAL VOTING which may take place in Tuesday’s Election (or Early
Voting),” he wrote on Twitter. “Anyone caught will be subject to the Maximum
Criminal Penalties allowed by law.”

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The president offered no basis for suggesting large-scale fraud was likely. “There
are a lot of people, a lot of people, in my opinion and based on proof, that try and
get in illegally and actually vote illegally,” he said.

But the invocation of voter fraud could foreshadow Mr. Trump’s reaction if
Democrats win the House. After he lost the popular vote in 2016, he explained it
away by asserting, without any foundation, that three million illegal immigrants
voted.

For his last campaign swing of the cycle, Mr. Trump stuck to territory he won in
2016, urging supporters not to believe red-state Democrats who tack to the middle
near Election Day, like Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana. “He’s gone rogue on the
Democrats because now he likes Trump a lot,” the president said. But “on
Wednesday, they go back to who they are.”

Mr. Trump grew visibly annoyed with protesters who kept popping up throughout
his Fort Wayne rally, noting that he had not seen many lately and then beginning to
taunt them directly.

“Go home to mommy,” he told one protester. “Can we have our law enforcement
take him out of here, please?”

After the third protester of the event, Mr. Trump blamed the disruptions on his host
state. “I don’t know what it is about Indiana, but I’m not surprised,” he said.
“That’s Indiana for you, going back home to mama.”

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Underscoring the emphasis on his conservative base, Mr. Trump was joined at his
last rally by the radio host Rush Limbaugh, who was born and raised in Cape
Girardeau, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Mr. Limbaugh’s family is such a
fixture here that the courthouse is named for his grandfather and tourists are
offered a self-driven tour of the broadcaster’s childhood home, school and first
radio station.

Mr. Trump also brought onstage two Fox News personalities, Sean Hannity and
Jeanine Pirro, both of whom gave short speeches promoting him. After the
campaign initially said Mr. Hannity would be a “special guest” at the rally, Mr.
Hannity denied that he would be participating, saying he would be covering it and
interviewing Mr. Trump.
“I will not be on stage campaigning with the President,” he tweeted. When he took
the stage after all, Mr. Hannity said he was surprised to be invited to the
microphone.

For his part, Mr. Limbaugh defended Mr. Trump against the charges of promoting
discord.

“They say we’re divisive, but we’re not divisive,” Mr. Limbaugh told the crowd.
“We’re defending an America that has strayed from our founding. Nothing to do
with race. Nothing to do with gender. Nothing to do with any of these identity-
political labels. It has to do with culture. It has to do with defending the
Constitution.”

Peter Baker reported from Cape Girardeau, Mo.; Michael D. Shear from
Cleveland; and Katie Rogers from Fort Wayne, Ind. Audrey Carlsen contributed
reporting from New York.