President Donald Trump’s ugly derision of Christine Blasey Ford in Mississippi this week was simultaneously loathsome and entirely predictable. “How did you get home? I don’t remember,” he said on Tuesday night, mocking Ford’s testimony last week against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. “How’d you get there? I don’t remember. Where is the place? I don’t remember. How many years ago was it? I don’t know.” Trump, as usual, was playing to the worst instincts of a rowdy crowd that gleefully laughed along with him. But strikingly, they were all needling a 51-year-old woman who has spent decades grappling with the psychological and emotional fallout from a teenage sexual assault.
This is who Trump is, of course, and you could read it on the faces of the White House correspondents who went on television the next morning to dissect his speech. Despite calling Ford “credible” and “compelling” the preceding week, reporters knew the president was never going keep his actual thoughts to himself, because he never has, despite what his aides or Republicans on Capitol Hill want. It was the real Trump who spoke in Mississippi Tuesday, the one who has rarely expressed even a shred of empathy for the most vulnerable among us, whether it be immigrant children, the disabled, the poor, and especially the victims of sexual assault. Remember, it is the official position of the White House that every single one of the women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct are liars. All 16 of them.
And yet: Trump’s electoral success is derived from his ability to surf his own pure instinct, however crude or impolitic, and translate it into a weirdly ad-hoc political strategy. He knows that the Kavanaugh saga is shaping up to be exactly the kind of thing that motivates the kind of voter that brought him to the Oval Office in the first place—the aging white man. So why would he not take Kavanaugh’s side in the most Trump-y way imaginable? Aside from his elite credentials and Bethesda, Maryland, bearing, Kavanaugh himself is something of a stand-in for the Republican voter in the age of Trump—a white, fiftysomething man, furious that what he feels is owed to him might be slipping away thanks to sinister forces at work in our culture. A white guy in a competitive Senate state like Texas, North Dakota, Florida, or West Virginia can surely identify with a man who may have done something stupid in high school or college, but doesn’t think it should ruin his life.
Trump, the mad puppet master of identity politics, knows this. Sixty-two percent of white men voted for him in 2016, and he is counting on his enormous support among non-college-educated white men to carry Republicans through in November. “It is a very scary time for young men in America, where you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of,” Trump said earlier on Tuesday, before his rally. “This is a very difficult time. What’s happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court justice.” Those remarks would not get a person invited to the Aspen Ideas Festival, but to the legions of dudes who spent last weekend shouting “I LIKE BEER” at pretty much every N.F.L. and college-football game, his comments probably didn’t sound very controversial at all. Saturdays are for the boys, after all.
Midterm elections are always a head-to-head matchup between the party’s two bases, and Republicans are playing defense in almost every respect. With college-educated women trending toward the Democrats in a huge way, opening up what could be being the biggest gender gap in American political history, Trump is left to do what he does best: stoke the anxieties of Republican men. So, since decency has no quarter in the Oval Office these days, why not jet to Mississippi for a night and attack a female victim from the presidential podium? There’s a lot of white men in Mississippi—and two Senate races this year as well.
In a sense, as a useful political tool, the Kavanaugh debate can be seen as an updated version of the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Back in 2004, George W. Bush allies tapped the outside group to cast doubt on John Kerry’s biographical calling card, his service in the Vietnam War, by questioning his heroics in a series of slashing TV ads. The maneuver was ripped from the Karl Rove playbook—attack your enemy’s biggest political strength. But the Swift Boat strategy was noteworthy for another reason that seems resonant today: it showed that there was nothing to be gained politically from standing on the sidelines and playing timid at a hot-burning moment, even if attacking a hero’s war service was deeply controversial. Instead, the Swift Boat team charged into the fight, even if it offended the sensibilities of the media and many reasonable-thinking Americans.
So rather than shying away from the Kavanaugh story and all of its thorny tentacles—the #MeToo movement, the politicization of the Supreme Court, the risk of pushing women even more deeply into the Democrats’ corner—Trump is now embracing Kavanaugh as a weapon, damn the torpedoes.
There is some evidence his tactics might be working. An Economist/YouGov poll out Wednesday showed that the share of Republican voters saying they will “definitely” vote in the election rose from 69 percent last week to 77 percent this week—a modest data point, perhaps, but one that seems tied directly to Kavanaugh. A Marist/NPR poll conducted this week showed a similar burst of enthusiasm among Republicans. In July, there was a 10-point gap between the number of Democrats and Republicans who said the elections were “very important.” That number is down to just two points now, and Republican men are a big reason. This past summer, 66 percent of Republican men said the elections were very important. Today, that number is 78 percent—a 12-point leap.
From a purely political perspective, it almost doesn’t matter if Kavanaugh gets confirmed or not. What matters above all else for Trump and his base is the enemy, the other side. Whether he wins or loses this fight, Trump can thunder from a stage in every competitive state from now until Election Day that this very good man, Brett Kavanaugh, came under attack from the fake-news media and another not-to-be-trusted woman, and can’t we all agree how unfair that is?
The question dominating cable news this week was whether or not the Kavanaugh story is a game changer for either party this election year. While Kavanaugh and Trump seem to have fueled a bump in the Republican intensity, conveniently at a time when early voting begins in key states like Montana, Arizona and Indiana—it’s not clear that voters will have this in mind as Election Day gets closer. Like many interregnums in the Trump administration, a story burns bright for a few days, maybe even a few weeks, and then recedes and flows into the next story. All of these controversies become of a piece with how you already feel about the administration. More than anything else, including gender, partisanship today determines how voters interpret a story and make voting decisions. While interest in the midterms has spiked among people identifying themselves as Republicans and Democrats, it has not among independents. November is a matchup between the Red Team and the Blue Team.
The Kavanaugh bump might be welcome news for Republicans, especially in House districts Trump won in 2016 and in the red states Democrats are defending in the Senate this year. But even if they close the intensity gap, they’re still only approaching parity with Democrats, who continue to hold an eight-point lead in an average of generic ballot polls—even with the new numbers this week showing Republican interest growing post-Kavanaugh. And for Democrats, Kavanaugh is just a reminder of why they are fired up in the first place.
I got a taste of that dynamic this week in Essex County, New Jersey, home to a progressive activist organization called NJ 11th for Change. It’s a group of suburban women—all of them college-educated, many of them moms—who say they became organized after the shock of Trump’s election. Though independent of the local Democratic Party, they are progressives nonetheless, working to elect Mikie Sherrill, a Democrat and former Navy pilot trying to win what might be the most Republican-leaning House district in the Northeast. A Democrat hasn’t won the seat in 24 years, but it feels within striking distance.
Talking to a handful of these women in the Montclair backyard of their political director, Elizabeth Juviler, they said the Kavanaugh fight was just another reminder of why they started organizing. Though they glumly predicted that the supposedly undecided Republicans Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Jeff Flake would all eventually vote yes on Kavanaugh, they were not discouraged about November. Unlike the Republicans who may have woken up this week, their intensity has been there since the beginning. For them, the Kavanaugh showdown is just another rev of the engine.
“I think for all the women who have been out in the streets, this is reminder of why,” said Judy Kelly, the group’s field director. “I am not surprised Kavanaugh is the nominee. I kind of suspected this would be coming our way in 2016. It’s confirming what we all worried about.”
Kelly paused for moment. “It’s hard to maintain outrage. It’s draining. It’s exhausting. But Kavanaugh was a reminder that, ‘Hey, look what they are doing.’ What’s it saying to all our kids? This is exactly what we were afraid of, and this is what we were worried about.” And so they went back to their meeting in a crowded living room, making phone calls and crunching their data—a single hardworking activist group of forty- and fiftysomething suburban women, two Yale grads like Kavanaugh among them, in just one House district in leafy New Jersey.
It’s the exact kind of scene that’s had Republicans rightly terrified this entire year, because the left has been organized and motivated since Trump swore his oath of office. The fundamentals of this midterm election are the same today as they have been all year: Democrats have every advantage in their corner—energy, fund-raising, fresh candidates, and an unpopular president to run against. And Trump will fight ugly until the bitter end to stop them, even if it means trashing a sexual assault victim with the full, brutal power of the presidency along the way.