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Fear and loathing on the Trump campaign trail

Analysis: President Donald Trump appears to be trying to scare up a midterms win. Literally.
Image: Donald Trump Billings Montana rally
According to Trump, the only thing supporters have to fear this election year is ... just about everything.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — In the battle for control of Congress, President Donald Trump's weapon of choice is fear.

At a rally for Republican Senate nominee Matt Rosendale in Billings, Montana, on Thursday night, the president warned his faithful that Democrats would raise their taxes, take their guns, block his wall, abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, open U.S. borders, end Social Security and cut Medicare.

He's also warned supporters this summer that the outcome in November could spell trouble for freedom of speech and religion and the First Amendment — and that if the GOP loses, violence could follow.

The overwhelming majority of the claims are patently false, but with two months to go — and analysts in both parties convinced that there’s a nonremote chance Republicans could lose at least the House — Trump is in desperation mode.

Trump's biggest motivator — for himself and for his base — is the specter of impeachment.

"This election you aren’t just voting for a candidate, you are voting for which party controls Congress — very important," he said Thursday night. "I say how do you impeach someone who is doing a great job that hasn’t done anything wrong."

He painted the picture of a country thrown into turmoil by tit-for-tat partisan impeachments to make the case for why Democrats shouldn't be empowered.

"You have a country that's going to turn into a third-world country because if the opposite party becomes president, every time, before it starts — before you even find out whether or not he or she is going to do a great job — they'll say we want to impeach him," he said. "If it does happen, it's your fault because you didn't go out to vote."

For weeks, Trump allies have described the midterm elections as a life-or-death struggle for his presidency. At the very least, Democratic control of one or both chambers of Congress would mean his agenda would be blocked. At worst, he could be impeached by the House (even if it would take a big swing of Senate Republicans to actually remove him from office).

"The impeachment message is not only a dire message, it’s a winning message," said Michael Caputo, a Republican strategist and former Trump aide. "The fact is this: If the president's base doesn’t come out as strong as they did in 2016, we lose the House. ... The president you voted for in 2016 is going to be impeached."

Caputo said it makes sense for Trump to talk about it even in places like Montana, where the highest-profile competitive race on the ballot is for the Senate, because his audience is much larger than the community that he's in.

"It’s amplified into targeted districts by the media," Caputo said.

But the “impeachment word,” as Trump calls it, is far from the only fear factoring into his stretch-run messaging.

On Thursday, he said that if Democrats are put in power, they will stop him from building the border wall that rallygoers chanted for.

“Democrats want to obstruct that,” he said, adding “they want to obstruct our great justices, and by the way, you obstruct these justices, you’re going to lose your Second Amendment, you’re going to lose your right to those guns ... so be careful, be careful, be careful.”

Democrats have been in control of the presidency and both chambers of Congress without repealing — or attempting to repeal — the Second Amendment, and Trump’s border-wall obstacles right now include many Republicans.

He also made the false assertion that Democrats would go after Social Security and Medicare, even though their party created the programs and has consistently fought Republican efforts to tinker with and cut them.

“They’re going to take away, they’re going to hurt your Social Security so badly and they’re killing you on Medicare,” he said Thursday. “They’re going to end up taking it away from you and you won’t even know what happened. And on top of that you’re going to pay more taxes. It’s crazy.”

In other remarks in recent weeks, he's painted the midterm stakes in even starker survivalist terms. "This Nov. 6 election is very much a referendum on not only me, it's a referendum on your religion, it's a referendum on free speech and the First Amendment," he told evangelical leaders at the White House late last month. If the GOP loses, he said, "they will overturn everything that we've done and they'll do it quickly and violently, and violently. There's violence."

If it sounds too horrific to be true, it probably is.

A White House official pointed to two policies to justify the argument Democrats intend to harm Medicare beneficiaries: their defense of the Obamacare law that included cuts to Medicare payments for insurers and providers, and some Democrats’ embrace of a “Medicare for All” approach that would both make government-backed health insurance available to all Americans.

The Washington Post’s fact-checker rated the former claim as a full four Pinocchios.

The latter requires voters to believe that expanding the Medicare program equals “killing you on Medicare.” Congressional Republicans, who have long sought to slash Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security funding, argue that they intend to save the programs by preventing Democrats from overspending on them.

The White House official noted that the strength of the economy under Trump has resulted in increased payroll taxes for social insurance programs, suggesting that Democratic success at the polls would reverse that trend. Still, that hardly amounts to Democrats' “taking away” Social Security, their party’s cornerstone policy achievement of the past century.

But don’t expect the president to dial back the life-or-death rhetoric, particularly when it comes to the survival of at least one thing: his presidency.

“Everywhere he goes, no matter whether it’s a Senate race or a House race, he needs to be on the impeachment message,” Caputo said.