Donald Trump’s political foes have branded him a demagogue, a budding fascist and even a Russian puppet. Scholars have emptied their inkwells describing his authoritarian ways in their many books about the decline of democracy. Civil libertarians have denounced his ethno-nationalistic rants at midterm campaign rallies, his battering of the First Amendment, his goading supporters to commit political violence, and his plans to rewrite the Constitution with executive orders.
How do we thank the president for all he has done? His incitements have caused one of the greatest boons to representative democracy since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Without Trump, the current midterms would likely have been their usually dreary self, with the party not holding the White House picking up a modest number of seats and nobody but party officials, journalists and a scattering of the civic-minded really caring all that much about the outcome. But thanks to Trump’s policies and barnstorming provocations, polls have detected near-record enthusiasm for the midterms, with 70 percent calling themselves highly interested in the election, compared to 61 percent in the 2006 and 2010 midterms. Voter registration has likewise swelled in several states holding key races, and the greatest number of absentee ballots for a midterm election (36 million) have been cast, up 75 percent over 2014. The early youth vote is up 144 percent in Illinois, 111 percent in Florida, and 362 percent in Georgia. Name an earnest get-out-the-vote campaign of the past 20 years that has ever notched those kinds of numbers.
Am I wrong to attribute our democratic orgy to Trump? I think not. As John Hudak of the Brookings Institution points out, good economic times resound at the ballot box to the benefit of the party holding the White House, and these are very good economic times. Popular presidents also stir large midterm turnouts. Trump doesn’t qualify as a popular president, with only lackluster approval ratings, but among his most devout followers he commands a godlike status that makes up for his ratings deficiencies. Could any current Democratic aspirant for the White House fill aircraft hangars and arenas in red-state America the way he does and make them howl? He’s the most popular unpopular president we’ve ever had.
The Trump virus still seems to be having its way with red-state America. But every virus entering the body politic creates an antibody, and the Trump antibody has been equally potent. The Democrats treated Trump’s special brand of politics and personality as fodder for lampoonery in 2016. But in 2018, the same package has bestirred Democrats to conduct their midterm campaigns as if waging Armageddon. It’s hard to imagine Democrats mounting such a furious midterm fight against a President Romney or a President McCain. Trump arouses a competitive something in Democrats we haven’t seen since Richard Nixon enraged them with his autocratic skulduggery. What he’s better than Nixon at doing is capturing the Democratic responses to his provocations and then inserting them into a feedback loop. Recent example: He nominated hardcore conservative Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and then repurposed Capitol Hill protests against Kavanaugh as an example of how the Democrats advocate mob rule.