The midterms will prove whether the Democrats can reverse the Republican-sponsored culture of new nationalism, or if Trump’s America is their new normal.
This year’s midterm elections in the United States matter a great deal. Whether or not the Republicans hold the House of Representatives and the Senate on the 6th of November will prove a watershed moment in American politics. The cumulative outcome of these 506 separate elections (35 Senate seats, 435 House seats, and 36 gubernatorials) will provide an answer to the following critical questions:
- Will Trump be impeached?
- Is explicitly xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric a winning strategy?
- What is the “Resistance”?
If the Democratic Party underperforms on Tuesday evening (Wednesday here in Sydney) it will demonstrate unequivocally that Donald Trump has completely redefined the political landscape, irrevocably changed the way politics is and will be played in the future, while simultaneously revealing the limits of late-20th Century liberalism. If the Republicans retain control of Congress there is a new status quo: a new Thrasymachian paradigm in which might makes right. The 2018 midterms will resolve whether the electoral successes of chauvinistic-populist-nationalists in Hungary, Brazil, Israel and America represent an unfortunate momentary detour, or, what is decidedly more likely, the foreseeable global-historical direction of travel.
If the Democrats gain a majority in the House of Representatives they can commence impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. If they can somehow also win a super-majority in the Senate they then have the legitimate authority to make good on that promise. This won’t happen. Only a third of the Senate is up for re-election every two years and this time the seats favour Republicans. While the reputable polling aggregator fivethirtyeight.com give the Democrats a paltry 15.5% chance of “winning control” of the Senate, they proffer a sterling 85.2% chance that they will secure a majority in the House of Representatives. With control of the House, the Democrats can (and will) significantly frustrate Trump’s administration until the next general election. In addition to the drama of impeachment proceedings (which they can engage regardless of their manifest futility) they will mount all manner of hearing, inquiry and committee into the president’s various misdeeds (à la Benghazi and the Clinton email hearings of 2014/2015). If the pollsters are right (this time), Trump becomes a lame-duck-president in the mould of 2014-2016 Barack Obama. The next two years will be legislative gridlock while the Democrats run out the clock and prepare for an assault on the White House in 2020.
CNN, MSNBC et al maintain Donald Trump is foolish to train focus on the (non-existent) threat posed by the slow moving, scattering and far-distant “caravan” of South American migrants instead of material realities. Conventional wisdom suggests Trump should emphasise the strength of the economy and the robust employment and wage-growth figures recently released by his Labor Department. Minds harken to the Clintonian politics of: “it’s the economy stupid.” Minds however, tend to forget that after the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994 they never got it back so long as Clinton was in the White House.
Trump is deploying a different strategy
The president is reenergising those irregular voters who supported him during the 2016 general election. These voters don’t ordinarily leave their mountain shacks, rustic homes, campervans and single-storey dwellings on Election Day unless the lizard-brain is stimulated by visceral (verging on existential) white identity politics. This is precisely what Trump manifested – what Van Jones artfully termed a “white-lash” – to become the most powerful man on the planet.
Indeed, mainstream media advice that Trump drop anti-immigrant demagoguery in favour of a positive economic message is disingenuous in the extreme. The plain truth is that the media would never dedicate airtime to Trump’s positive characterisation of the American economy. Instead, the media would do what they have done these past twelve months: mitigate any credit Trump is due, explaining that the foundations of the resurgent economy were built by his predecessor. The truth of this assertion notwithstanding, the “advice” is a ruse. The media simply seek to disarm Trump but he’s far too wily for that. The president knows that flirting with overt racism and anti-immigrant polemics is akin to tickling the ratings erogenous zone. The media fall over themselves to give Trump wall-to-wall coverage. The calculation is simple. Talk about the economy and lose control of the narrative, or, talk about the impending invasion of America by 5,000 unarmed and scantily clad brown folk, and mainline your rhetoric directly into the electoral bloodstream.
It’s a mistake to think securitising the caravan, militarising the border and existentialising immigration is only useful as a foil for white identity politics. In a matter of months the rest of America will realise what Trump (probably clued in by either “Sloppy” Steve Bannon or his immigration-Czar Stephen Miller) has known for a long time. Illegal immigration across the southern border has been (until now) an unexploited African American “wedge issue”. Slowly but surely the argument that those most affected by illegal immigration in the US are “low-skilled” blacks has been seeping into the African American consciousness. During his 2008 testimony before the US Commission on Civil Rights, Vernon Briggs stated that “in this post-1965 era of mass immigration, no racial or ethnic group has benefited less or been harmed more than the nation’s African American community.” As much as the Republicans can’t win without white voters, the Democrats can’t win without black voters. The ancillary “benefit” of Trump’s “caravan crisis” is that it places pressure on the Democratic assumption that the African American electorate is a monolith.
Ever since Trump got the keys to the Oval Office in 2016, America has experienced a social activism and progressive energy unknown since the counterculture and civil rights movements of the 1960s. The Women’s March, pussy hats, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, Antifa: the Resistance writ large. The 2018 midterms will reveal the limits and ability of these movements to effect meaningful political change. The Kavanagh hearing did not augur well for the #MeToo movement. As much as liberals seek to demarcate history as “pre” and “post” #MeToo, activists and sympathetic politicians proved unable to prevent a credibly accused sex offender from assuming a lifetime appointment and ascending to the highest court in the land.
There has been sound and fury from the Resistance, but little practical politics. Recall the airport blockades of January 2017 in response to Trump’s draconian and banal (Muslim) travel ban. In the end, the Supreme Court upheld the majority of his executive order, and, after changing a few words here and a couple of clauses there, it went into effect. Since this defeat, the Resistance has been conspicuously absent. Similarly, since the incandescent “children in cages” lament heard around the world, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) hasn’t been abolished, let alone there being de-escalation in deportations.
The past two years have been a study in unabashed power politics. Like Plato’s interlocutor Thrasymachus, in The Republic, Trump and his Republicans understand “justice” as nothing more than the “advantage of the stronger”. Politics in contemporary America is a winner-takes-all, zero-sum game, where, if you have the numbers, damn the consequences. There is no “what comes next” or “how far can politics degrade in the absence of norms, decency, and compromise?”
Today, faithful to the “business mind-set”, politics has become rentier capitalism: consumed by asset stripping and mortgaging an uncertain future for short-term gains that accrue to the few and the powerful.
To date, the Resistance has been merely an idea: a chimera. The 2018 midterm elections will reveal whether it is in fact something concrete.
If the Democrats take the House in convincing fashion and hold the Republicans to their one-seat majority in the Senate, the Resistance is real; the Resistance has political substance. If however, the Republicans stave off the Democratic encroachment and retain control of Congress, one must conclude the Resistance is an epiphenomenon and humanity has just observed the limits of the post-WWII liberal order.
For what its worth, I think the Republicans will retain control of Congress. I anticipate the GOP winning 219 seats to the Democrats’ 216 in the House of Representatives, and 54 seats in the Senate to the Democrats’ 46.