Trump Lost: Americans Want Something Better
published in the Yorkshire Post (slightly edited) November 7, 2018
In the world Donald Trump has created for himself, all events are an endless parade with himself taking the salute. Predictably he greeted his reverses in the midterm elections by Tweeting a gushing tribute from a political cheerleader: “Mr Trump has magic about him. This guy has magic coming out of his ears. The Republicans are unbelievably lucky to have him.”
But the magic has gone. Even he knows that he has just been beaten badly in elections which were largely a referendum on himself. Exit polls suggested that passing judgement on his performance was the biggest factor for two thirds of voters. That is not unusual: most mid-term elections are a referendum on the incumbent administration (like British by-elections). But Trump’s defeat in the elections for the House of Representatives is in many ways unique.
Congressional districts are frequently gerrymandered (the term was invented in the early United States) and recently Republicans have had more opportunity to achieve this than Democrats. The new Democratic majority therefore understates the party’s success in the popular vote. At the time of writing, some counts are incomplete but it appears that they won this, nationwide, by over 8 per cent.
The conventional wisdom is that American electors are swayed by the economy. Trump’s Presidency has seen the longest economic expansion in American – but he has derived no political benefit. Two years into his Presidency he is less popular with American unemployment at 3.7 per cent than Obama at the same point in 2010 when unemployment was 9.8 per cent.
Trump has failed completely to realign American politics, in the way that F D Roosevelt achieved when he built the Democratic party into a mighty coalition of interests, and Richard Nixon achieved (before Watergate) when he recruited his “silent majority” of white working-class voters and also took over the Southern states. Quite the opposite: Trump has united key groups of voters against him.
In 2016 Trump held a slight lead among white women voters (despite the exposure of his offensive sexist remarks). Recent election polls suggest that his party now trails among all women voters by a thumping 19 per cent: such a shift could happen only with a massive defection of white women voters. They also suggest that the Republicans are clinging to a thin lead in voters over 50 – but trail among younger voters, and the younger voters are the worse they perform. Demographically, Trump is taking his party to oblivion.
Worse still for Trump and his party, their opponents got involved in the political process on an unprecedented scale.
Voter turnout will be a modern record for a midterm Congressional elections: it could reach 50 per cent, compared to 37 per cent in 2014. Young anti-Trump voters were especially eager to take part: their turnout increased in at least 12 states and doubled in Texas, New Jersey and Georgia, all key battlegrounds for 2020.
The Democrats also benefited from a massive rise in individual donations to their Congressional candidates – from $227 million in 2014 to $496 million. By contrast, the Republican tally was barely changed, from $255 million to $260 million. (In total, Congressional candidates raised over $1.2 billion, a measure of the uncontrolled cost of American politics. By contrast, our political parties spent £39 million fighting last year’s General Election – around $50 million at the then exchange rate.)
Women took part as candidates on an unprecedented scale: 234 of the final 898 contenders for Congress were women – 182 of them Democrats. It now appears that 96 were elected – a record – and the new House will have its first female Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. The elections also produced gains for African-Americans, Latinos and Latinas, LGBT people – and, for all Trump’s vicious rhetoric, American Muslims.
There are a few consolations for Trump. He has hailed his Party’s gains in the Senate, but these were always likely. The Senate races this year were generally in unpromising Democratic states, where the party was defending results gained in the tide of Obama’s second election victory in 2012. Better news for Trump was that his party clung to the governorships of Florida, Georgia and Ohio, and with it control of voter registration.
Importantly, the elections produced no Democrat winner who looks like a serious Presidential contender. But the charismatic populist Beto O’Rourke, who almost seized Texas from the powerful Republican Ted Cruz, could find it easier to build a national profile outside the Senate than as a minority freshman inside it.
The new House Democrats were elected to thwart Trump, and they have no reason to take a bipartisan approach even if Trump, most improbably, tries to conciliate them. They will probably investigate him on a raft of sensitive matters, including his hidden tax returns, Russian links, and (less familiar to British readers) the award of contracts for disaster relief. Trump’s White House may have to respond to new charges day after day. The House just might find grounds to impeach him. Although the Senate would reprieve him, it would paralyse his Presidency and virtually eliminate him as a candidate for 2020.
The new House can of course stymie any intended legislation by Trump which looks remotely popular. That would make him turn to the areas where he can act without it: packing the Federal judges’ bench, more belligerent gestures in defence, foreign policy and trade. There is some potential good news for Theresa May: Trump may be more eager for a post-Brexit trade deal. The bad news is that it would have to be a total victory for Trump.
Impeachment apart, it would be wrong to rule out Trump’s re-election in 2020. He may, like several predecessors, notably Harry Truman, be able to mobilize public opinion against an obstructive, “do-nothing” Congress.
But the midterm results suggest strongly that he cannot win by his usual formula of trying to make voters act on hatred. The American people have asked for a new and better President.