Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Don't be fooled. The midterms were not a bad night for Trump by Cas Mudde

Many people have dubbed the midterm elections a referendum on Donald Trump. The president himself agreed, having toured the country extensively, crowding out rational messages by Republican candidates about the booming economy with a emotional message of nativism. 

Trump made the elections about him and his openly far-right agenda. That left little space for non-Trumpian, let alone anti-Trumpian, Republicans.

While the Democratic party emphasized economic issues, and particularly healthcare, they were happy to make the midterms a referendum on Trump and his nativism. 

They emphasized their support for a diverse America both through their candidates and discourse. The implicit slogan was: Trump does not define America.

The midterms turned out to indeed be a referendum on Trump and “Trumpism”, ie a populist radical right combination of authoritarianism, nativism and populism.

It was fully embraced by the Republican party and fully rejected by the Democratic party. The key result of the midterms is that America is now both more nativist and more multicultural.

True, some of the most strident white nationalist and white supremacist Republicans were defeated – although an open neo-Nazi like Arthur Jones still got over 25% of the vote in the third congressional district of Illinois, while openly white nationalist and pro-Confederate Corey Stewart lost the Virginia senate race with virtually the same score as his conservative predecessor six years ago. 

Perhaps most painful for Trump was that Kris Kobach, a key player in his ill-fated and ill-named Presidential Advisory Commission on Electoral Integrity who has a decade-long history of racial voter suppression, was handsomely defeated in the Kansas gubernatorial race.

But many other far-right Republicans were re-elected, including Louie Gohmert, Steve King and Ted Cruz in Texas, while old-school Republicans were replaced by more brazenly Trumpian ones – as, for example, Katie Arrington in South Carolina (House of Representatives), Brian Kemp in Georgia (governor), and Ron DeSantis in Florida (governor).

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Democratic party made modest overall advances, in terms of seats rather than votes – barely taking the House, while staying well behind a US Senate majority. That said, the party has changed fundamentally in composition. 

Two years after Bernie Sanders’ failed challenge for the presidential nomination, there will be almost as many Democratic Socialists as conservative-leaning Democrats (known as Blue Dog Democrats) in Congress. While still a minority, they will be a loud minority, convinced they represent the future of the party.

The fact that the Republicans held up pretty well will give them hope for the 2020 presidential elections

Even more importantly, the Democratic congressmen and women are finally starting to reflect the party’s diverse electorate. Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’sRashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women to be elected to Congress, while Kansas’ Sharice Davis and New Mexico’s Deb Haaland will become the first two Native American Congresswomen. And although Stacey Abrams, who ran in Georgia, will not become the first African-American female governor, Jared Polis of Colorado will be the first openly gay governor in the country.

So, where does that leave us? While there was a Democratic “blue wave”, it was modest, in line with usual midterm shifts, particularly when one party is in charge of all the branches of government. Trump will celebrate this as a victory, which is not without merit. Sure, the Republicans lost many races, and some significantly when compared to the 2016 presidential elections. But they still held on to most of their positions.

Trump’s biggest victory, however, was within the Republicans party. When he won the nomination, many prominent conservatives and Republicans were openly Never Trumpers. When he won the presidency, most Republicans decided to accept him, hoping to mold him into a mainstream conservative. Just two years later, without Steve Bannon and other alleged spin doctors, Trump has shaped the Republican party in his image instead.

Whether the Republican establishment likes it or not – and more and more are actually perfectly happy with it – the Grand Old Party is now Trump’s Party. Their fate is intertwined with his. The old conservative Republican party is dead, for now. The coming two years they will campaign as a radical right party, led by an omnipresent leader, who will define the Republican party for a whole generation of Americans.

The fact that the Republicans held up pretty well during the midterms even though Trump himself was not on the ballot will give them hope for the 2020 presidential elections. In that election they can rally around a clear leader and program, whose polarization mobilizes the base unlike any candidate could in the midterms. And if they have promising-looking figures on the economy, that will help, too, as it will have done this time.

Trump’s party will face a Democratic party, whose diversity is both its strength and its weakness. It allows them to tap into a much broader electorate than the Republican party, but it also might prevent them from presenting a clear and coherent program. At the same time, most of the power is set to remain in the hands of the old white party elites, some of whom will also play a major role in the party primaries.

Another highly divisive primary could weaken the Democrats’ mobilization potential and play into the hands of the Republicans, who face no internal challenge. At the same time, having the House in the hands of the Democrats gives the Republicans the opportunity to shift blame and emphasize the importance of not letting this “unique chance” to Make America Great Again slip. All in all, this was not a bad night for Trump.

* Cas Mudde is a Guardian US columnist and professor in international affairs at the University of Georgia


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