In a few days we will reach the halfway point between the presidential election of 2016 and the midterm elections of 2018. Normally, midterm elections at least partially operate as a referendum on the performance of the president and the president’s party. But there are growing signs Donald Trump will try something entirely new: making the midterms a referendum on his defeated 2016 opponent.
Just since October 27, the semi-official message center of the Republican Party — the president’s Twitter feed — has launched 15 separate attacks on Hillary Clinton. They mostly focus on claims that she, not he, colluded with Russia, though today he’s leapt joyously into the controversy over Clinton’s pre-primary fundraising deal with the Democratic National Committee.
As always, Trump is careful to inflate every allegation against Clinton into a crime that needs to be investigated, and even within the constraints of Twitter, he manages to work in collateral insults such as calling the junior United States senator from Massachusetts “Pocahontas,” an allusion to right-wing attacks on her for once identifying herself as having Native American ancestry.
But the broader picture is that, day in and day out, Trump is bringing up and savaging Crooked Hillary again and again. It was his first impulse when the Mueller investigation produced its initial indictments of former Trump campaign officials. And it is the touchstone to which he returns almost no matter which controversy has arisen about his own behavior.
Perhaps this habit just reflects Trump’s proclivity for counter-punching, for “often accus[ing] others of the exact thing he stands accused of.” It was certainly the hallmark of his 2016 campaign, most notably when he responded to the politically devastating revelations of the Access Hollywood video by bringing Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct accusers into the audience at a presidential debate with the 42nd president’s wife.
But as we get farther and farther away from that campaign, you have to wonder if Trump is determined to keep in place the dynamics that produced his unlikely election as president. Yes, his base is excited by his immigrant-bashing and law-and-order rhetoric and his defense of “our history and our heritage” and his chronic defiance of political correctness. But as the chants of “Lock Her Up” at a Trump event in Alabama 319 days after the 2016 election showed, nothing is as exciting as are attacks on Crooked Hillary.
And they are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. So long as the Mueller investigation continues, the pro-Trump conservative media is sure to continue to ventilate “alt-collusion” theories revolving around the Clinton campaign and/or Clinton as Obama’s secretary of State. Incredibly, two new congressional investigations of Hillary Clinton are now underway:
One probe will deal with why the Obama administration allowed a Russian company to acquire U.S. uranium mines, and a second will look into why the FBI decided not to pursue charges against Clinton for use of a personal email server.
Republicans who want to keep the focus on Trump’s vanquished foe will receive considerable assistance from Democrats who cannot seem to disentangle themselves from the controversies arising from the Clinton-Sanders nomination contest.
So it is entirely possible that as the 2018 election approaches, Republicans from Trump on down will be incessantly talking about Hillary Hillary Hillary as though she’s on the ballot somewhere. It may be a better political bet than dwelling on the president’s own record.