Jennifer Rubin: Midterms could provide a national cleansing, a political fumigation

In this Oct. 4, 2018 photo, President Donald Trump pumps his fist as he leaves after speaking at a campaign rally in Rochester, Minn. Trump is battling Democrats for control of Congress. But you might think its 2016 all over again. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

With about two weeks to go before the midterms that could strip President Donald Trump of the protection a Republican House and Senate afford him, Trump has returned to his favorite hits - mocking women's looks ("Horseface," he called the adult-film actress to whom he paid hush money), fanning hysteria about a caravan of immigrants from Central America and cheering on violence against the press.

He seems convinced that if he can turn up the venom, resentment and fear high enough among his male, white, rural voters he'll save himself and the party from disaster. He appears unaware or unconcerned that he is thereby lighting a fire under women voters, college-educated voters, young voters and nonwhite voters who are now running in record numbers to the polls in early voting and into the arms of Democrats.

Poll numbers look ominous for the GOP House majority, and much as he’d like to avoid blame, Trump’s own putrid approval numbers — 39 percent of Americans approve, 53 percent disapprove in the latest CBS News poll — weigh down most Republicans on the ballot. (His handling of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation gets virtually identical low marks.) In the CBS poll, Democrats hold a 9-point lead in the generic congressional poll.

Trump would no doubt be in even more political peril if not for the economy's strong performance. Conversely, even with a strong economy, Trump's presidency is historically unpopular. Trump's response to the reportedly brutal murder of The Washington Post's Global Opinions contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi and Trump's ongoing appeals to hatred and resentment remind us that much more than policy decisions or even oversight are at issue in these midterms.

The Saudi episode, which exemplifies the financial and moral malignancy that extends from the White House to the GOP Congress, provides a clue as to what is fueling the Trump opposition.

To begin with, Trump's shadowy finances, which a docile GOP Congress allow to remain hidden, leave many of us wondering if his own financial interests rather than our national interests drive policy on everything from Russia to Saudi Arabia to tax policy.

As to Saudi Arabia, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Jerrold Nadler, N.Y., the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Trump last week demanding information on monies he and the Trump Organization may have received from the Saudis.

"Your Administration's response calls into question whether you are acting based on the American public's interests or your own private interests. Moreover, it appears that the steps you have taken to insulate yourself from foreign conflicts of interest are more limited and less adequate than previously understood," they wrote. They recounted the president's long history of financial dealings with Saudis. They added, "As President, you continue to accept payments from the Saudi government: in 2017, a lobbying firm working for the Saudi government spent $270,000 at the Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C.; in 2018, the Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York City and in Chicago received 'an influx of visitors from Saudi Arabia' that mitigated significant losses and boosted quarterly revenues."

In other words, Americans cannot tell whether Trump is so corrupted and compromised that he's running Middle East policy to secure his own finances. The reason we do not know for certain is that Republicans refuse to look for answers. Even during Watergate we did not experience such profound and unchecked corruption, such utter disregard for elected officials' constitutional oaths to serve the people's interests, not their own.

The corruption eating away at the presidency is not merely financial, of course. Conservative Trump critic and former adviser to President George W. Bush, Peter Wehner, in recent days eloquently addressed the moral dimension of the Saudi situation. “I think the fundamental interpretative fact of the Trump presidency — and I think that this Saudi example is only one manifestation of it — is this is a person (Trump) who is fundamentally amoral and immoral,” he said during an MSNBC appearance. “He is a man without human empathy or without human sympathy, and in many respects a man without conscience; and I think what you’ve seen over the last several days is a person who’s reacting that way.”

Wehner continued, "And I think that we've seen that lack of human empathy and conscience in almost every arena of the Trump presidency. It explains the cruelty, it explains the policy at the border, separating kids from (parents), it explains the pathological lies, it explains the fact that he's a man without loyalty - and I think this is just the latest arena in which we're seeing this ugly drama play itself out."

In short, the country is convulsed by a president whose personal corruption and moral vacuity offend our deepest-held convictions and our self-image as a citizens of the world's leading democracy. His devoted cult and his cynical apologists are content to be lied to and receive trinkets (e.g., a tax cut that really doesn't benefit most of them). The rest of us are not. The energy, the anger and the sense of urgency we see in the run-up to the midterm elections reflects voters' disgust and dismay over a president and a party who sully our democracy.

Two years of Trump leave us wanting to wash away the moral and financial filth that he’s tracked into the White House. If Americans turn out to vote in large enough numbers, the midterms will provide a national cleansing, a political fumigation. The midterms could mark the first substantial step on the road to national renewal. How refreshing and exhilarating that would be.

Jennifer Rubin | The Washington Post

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion from a center-right perspective for The Washington Post. @JRubinBlogger