x

Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

The midterms are a vote on the nature of the United States

The language of the opposing campaigns reveals starkly differing ideas of what America really means

Democratic congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib addresses supporters at a midterm campaign rally in Detroit. Reuters/Rebecca Cook
Democratic congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib addresses supporters at a midterm campaign rally in Detroit. Reuters/Rebecca Cook

Judging by the unprecedented number of early voters, millions of Americans share former president Barack Obama’s assessment that the character of their nation is on the ballot in today’s midterm elections. Donald Trump has catered to an apparently deep-seated American need for scapegoats by repeatedly demonising immigrants, minorities and the media. Unsurprisingly, the president has spent much of his time in the run-up to the midterms focusing on the “invasion” of central American refugees making their way towards the US. Never one to undersell a scare story, Mr Trump has deployed 5,000 troops on the border to roll out “beautiful” barbed wire in a blatant stunt. Among the “bad hombres” heading north, he has suggested, might be found “many criminals” and – a new low for fake news, for which Trump freely admits he has no evidence – “unknown Middle Easterners”.

As Mr Obama told voters in Indiana on Sunday, when politicians are “shamelessly lying”, democracy has gone off the rails. But there are some bright lights flickering. The Trump era has galvanised minorities to step forward, as voters and candidates, to place their faith in equality of opportunity and the democratic process. Today, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both part of a surge of minority candidates generated in response to Mr Trump’s rhetoric, are almost certain to become the first Muslim women elected to the House of Representatives.

Under Mr Trump, America seems to be in danger of forgetting that its very roots are in immigration. In February, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services altered its mission statement, from fulfilling “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” – broadly well-meaning words that do, however, gloss over the existence of the country’s indigenous population – to “fairly adjudicating requests for immigration benefits while protecting Americans, securing the homeland and honouring our values”.

The question now is whether those values remain true to the generosity of spirit symbolised by the Statue of Liberty, or whether the most divisive presidency in recent history has extinguished the flame that once welcomed the world’s “poor [and] huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

By the time the polls close, it will be clear whether these elections have resulted in a vote of confidence in Mr Trump’s bombast or the values that truly made America great.