Read: What is the point of a Trump rally in 2018?
With the election just 14 days away, Trump is campaigning hard. He has four rallies scheduled this week alone—his other stops are central Wisconsin, Charlotte, and southern Illinois. His closing argument is a familiar one. Following the blueprint that brought him to victory in 2016, he’s relying on the power of immigration fears, enhanced by blatantly false rhetoric.
For example, Trump claimed he had begun constructing his border wall; he has not. He claimed Democrats are for open borders; for the most part, they are not, nor is Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, against whom Trump was campaigning. He claimed Democrats were to blame for asylum seekers traveling to the United States; the migrants are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries. Trump also claimed—without evidence—that Democrats started the “caravan” of refugees currently wending its way northward through Mexico.
If that were true, and there’s no evidence for it, it would be a colossal blunder. The specter of a column of Hispanics marching northward in the closing weeks of the election has provided Trump just the talking point he wants to whip up his supporters, and on Monday night he showed how he intends to use it.
Trump covered lots of other ground in the speech, of course. There was a strange, and coolly received, riff about Hurricane Harvey. (The president continues to believe, for some reason, that people went out in pleasure craft to enjoy the storm; he also complained that the storm was expensive, and “I’m paying for it.”) There was also an apparently bogus promise to cut taxes 10 percent in the coming week.
But that’s a reminder that almost a year ago, when Trump rammed a tax cut through Congress, it was supposed to be the heart of the GOP’s pitch to voters in 2018. Instead, it’s been a total flop, which is why Trump was out beating the immigration drum once more.
It remains to be seen how effective this closing argument will be. Immigration remains a potent motivator for Trump’s supporters, but the sort of rhetoric he uses also risks firing up Democratic voters, too. (Polls show strong enthusiasm among voters in both parties.) Some Republican officeholders have tried to keep their distance from Trump. The same dilemma almost always faces members of the president’s party in a midterm election. That party typically loses seats, and down-ballot candidates are forced to choose between trying to separate themselves from the White House and hugging the president close and hoping to drive up base turnout. That dilemma is especially acute with Trump, who is both historically unpopular with the electorate overall and extremely popular with Republican voters.
Trump’s reelection campaign, which produces these rallies, said there had been 100,000 requests for tickets, but Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said on Twitter that there were 18,000 to 19,000 attendees inside and 3,000 or so outside. Reporters inside the Toyota Center noted empty seats. Nonetheless, Trump boasted that the rally had broken a record. (Though Texas is a strong red state overall, Houston, like most other big cities, went for Hillary Clinton.)