Opinion

Trump’s Culture War Is Entering Its Scorched-Earth Phase

Will weary voters resist his tactics in the midterms?

LeBron James, shown here in 2016, was the target of a Trump Twitter attack last week. Slamming one of Ohio’s heroes right before a special election in the state may not have been the savviest move on the part of the president, Curtis writes. (Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

OPINION — President Donald Trump is crediting his raucous Ohio rally for propelling Troy Balderson over Democratic challenger Danny O’Connor in a U.S. congressional special election that is officially still too close to call. But what if his fiery rhetoric and the image of a sea of angry faces, attacks on the media and signs supporting the murky QAnon conspiracy actually derailed what should have been an easy Republican victory?

Republican candidates have signaled they will ride the Trump train, with their fearless leader promising to stoke the outrage all the way to the November midterms to persuade the base to show up. The Republican Party is Trump’s party now, so those wanting to win or keep office may not have a choice.

Consider the tightrope the Ohio GOP candidate had to walk. Pressed by statements from Republican Gov. John Kasich, Balderson was not exactly strong in owning the president’s last-minute appearance on his behalf. It’s understandable, considering that Kasich’s endorsement may have helped him more.

Balderson and O’Connor will meet again in November, with more chances to tip too far one way or the other. While my Roll Call colleague Patricia Murphy advised Democrats who want to win nationwide to accept moderates and moderating voices into the fold, GOP candidates in more competitive, diverse districts will have to make choices of their own.

Despite what might happen with Robert Mueller’s investigation, Paul Manafort’s trial and any yet unknown scandal or distraction — or maybe because of them — expect Trump to take to the road, to bask in the glow of rally support where he may go off script and forget the candidate he is ostensibly there to help.

There is only one Trump, full out, while different districts require different, more nuanced electoral appeals. The immigrant-bashing and race-baiting that has replaced talk of tax cuts energizes some, repels others.

Not good for the gander

Early signs show the independents and suburban white Republicans, particularly women, who abandoned the party in Ohio may not be as enamored of the scorched-earth style that sustains Trump and his rally crowds.

Take the Trump playbook of attacking African-American athletes, their patriotism, motives and smarts.

By cursing them and triggering misbegotten policies handed down from team owners, Trump twisted protests of NFL athletes, primarily African-American players, who called attention to inequality and instances of police brutality. While he was successful in sowing chaos in that instance, his recent nasty, racially tinged put-down of LeBron James did not land so strategically. (And what political instinct told the president it was wise to attack one of the state’s heroes just before the Ohio vote?)

When the newly minted Los Angeles Laker announced his send-off to his hometown of Akron, his foundation’s partnership with the city’s public-school system for the I Promise School for at-risk students, Trump could have acknowledged the pair’s past and present disagreements but praised the accomplishment. It’s an area of particular vulnerability for the Trump administration, which has an education secretary, Betsy DeVos, whose competence and commitment to public education has been questioned since she took the job.

‘Shut up and dribble’

But Trump couldn’t resist making it personal — and he got slammed by pretty much everyone. Even first lady Melania Trump was none too eager to sign on, as she raised the possibility of visiting the school. Though her office backtracked to say she was not on James’ side against her husband’s, per se, the initial point was made.

James did not answer the president directly, showing a restraint the president has so far not demonstrated, though others pointed out the difference between an athlete helping children and an administration separating them from parents. And James will have the last word, in a Showtime documentary series on the changing cultural and political role of athletes, called “Shut Up and Dribble,” turning an insult from conservative commentators into a brand.

The crowds at Trump rallies are definitely getting louder, but is that enthusiasm scary rather than invigorating to those outside the room? A recent Quinnipiac University poll revealed that nearly half the country, 49 percent, including 11 percent of Republicans, believe their president, Donald Trump, is a racist. A majority of voters believe he “has emboldened people who hold racist beliefs to express those beliefs publicly.”

It’s been a year since the violent Unite the Right rally of neo-Nazis, Klan members and white supremacists that resulted in the killing of counterprotester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. This weekend many of the same right-wing groups are gathering in Washington, D.C., for an anniversary march.

Will President Trump judge some “very fine people on both sides” as he did last year, when it became clear on which side he stood?

This is the new normal — an uncertain, divided America. We will see in November how many voters share or reject this particular vision, and what they are willing to do about it.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

Watch: What We Learned From the Last Special Election Before November 

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