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

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - 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.

Even more im­por­tantly, the Demo­cratic con­gress­men and women are fi­nally start­ing to re­flect the party’s di­verse elec­torate. Min­nesota’s Il­han Omar and Michi­gan’s Rashida 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 Repub­li­can 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

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

Pho­to­graph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

‘The key re­sult of the midterms is that Amer­ica is now both more na­tivist and more mul­ti­cul­tural.’

Pho­to­graph: Nick Ox­ford/Reuters

A Scott Walker sup­port­ers at his midtermelec­tion night party.

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