Wounded but unvanquished, Trump could go on and on
In the end there was no blue wave. A wave washes all before it. When Republicans expand their majority in the Senate, and win governors’ races in Florida, Ohio, Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats cannot claim a broad and decisive shift in electoral opinion towards them. But there is now a dam. Democrats won the House of Representatives. For the first time since his election there is the potential for some kind of legislative check on Donald Trump’s presidency. The House has subpoena power. Democrats can set their own agenda and block the president’s. For the first time since
Trump’s election there is the potential for resistance to move from the streets to Congress.
So it was not a victory for Trump. Democrats won the popular vote and illustrated how he could be a liability for Republicans. Young people and Latinos turned out in huge numbers to vote against him and his agenda, while women and suburbanites threw their lot in with the Democrats. Together, they delivered a Nevada Senate seat and created the closest race in Texas for a generation.
But it was not the defeat that many wished for, or that Trump deserved. When he won in 2016, some people truly believed he might govern in a different manner to how he had campaigned. They argued that he should be given the benefit of the doubt. Now there can be no doubt. He is a bigot. This campaign took place during an intense period of white-nationalist terror, for which his rhetoric provided, if not the cause, then at least the context. First came an unstable mail bomber who appears to have been radicalised by Trump. Then an armed man in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, shot two elderly black people dead after trying to break into a black church. When confronted by an armed white passerby he said: “Whites don’t kill whites.” And then an antisemitic gunman, full of bile over the caravan of Central American migrants coming through Mexico, entered a synagogue shouting: “All Jews must die.” He killed 11 people.
That afternoon, after a morning of carnage and a week of terror, Trump addressed a crowd in Murphysboro, Illinois. “This,” he said, “will be the election of the caravans, the Kavanaughs, law and order, tax cuts, and you know what else? It’s going to be the election of common sense, because most of it’s common sense.”
His response was not to tone down the xenophobia, misogyny and personalised attacks but to ramp them up. On the first day the mail bombing came to light he made an effort at being presidential.
“Those engaged in the political arena must
stop treating political opponents as being morally defective,” he said. In the following week he proceeded to insult many who had received a bomb threat. He branded Tom Steyer “wacky” and a “crazy, stumbling lunatic”; repeated the claim that Maxine Waters was “probably the most corrupt member of Congress”; and claimed “it would be the beginning of the end” if the Democrats won.
After the synagogue shooting he continued to legitimise the myth, spread in part by senior Republican congressmen, that George Soros funded the caravan, while the Republican House majority leader Kevin McCarthy made the following his marquee tweet, which he later deleted: “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and [Michael] Bloomberg to BUY this election!” (All three are Jewish.)
Throughout the campaign Trump lied constantly and about everything. He has claimed there are people from the Middle East in the caravan (there aren’t); he justified continuing to campaign on the day of the shooting by insisting the New York Stock Exchange opened the day after 9/11 (it didn’t open for six days); he claimed there would be tax cuts before the midterms (there couldn’t be – Congress is not in session); he promised to use an executive order to end the automatic right to citizenship for those born here (he doesn’t have that power); he claimed that no other country allows citizenship on that basis (30 countries do). One ad he produced was so racist and full of lies that NBC, Facebook and even Fox pulled it.
Since there can now be no doubt about who Trump is, there should also be no denial. For the most part, enough of the American electorate appears comfortable overlooking that. Many embraced the bigotry and misogyny – one crowd in Georgia chanted, “Lock her up”, referring not to Hillary Clinton, but the woman who accused supreme court justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual harassment. But many who did not approve of it had no trouble voting for it. This time around no one can blame the FBI or WikiLeaks.
To that extent, this been not so much a case of
Trump taking over the party as a realignment between the leadership and the membership. It recalls the moment in 2008 when Republican voter Gayle Quinnell told a Minnesota crowd and Republican presidential hopeful John McCain: “I can’t trust Obama. I’ve read about him and … he’s an Arab.”
McCain shook his head and said, “No, ma’am” several times, before relieving her of the microphone. “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, [a] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” Living in the age of Trump, it’s as though Quinnell grabbed the mic back and is now in the White House.
So while the country has not endorsed the Trump agenda, it has not fully rejected it either. To be fair, it has not been formally asked to. Trump was not on the ballot and, for the most part, Democrats did not direct their attacks towards his policies or pronouncements. They did not mention impeachment. Children separated from parents at the border barely came up. With a few exceptions, they did not present a positive, more hopeful alternative to his dystopian worldview either. In that respect they continue to be a poor conduit for all the energy that has emerged from the huge demonstrations and general anxiety sparked by his ascent. Electorally, that energy has nowhere else to go; politically, the Democrats are doing precious little with it.
As such, this election saw the normalisation of white nationalism, as an open, mainstream ideology. Presidents generally do poorly in midterm elections. Both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton saw their parties fare worse during their first midterms. Trump is no different; apart from all the ways in which he is completely different. So his tenure has turned into a fairly ordinary presidency during which the president says completely extraordinary things. Both Obama and Clinton then went on to win second terms. It is no longer unthinkable that Trump could too.
Donald Trump addresses the press at the White House yesterday