As part of efforts to contribute to intellectual and political internationalism, I am trying to write about U.S. politics for Nueva Sociedad on a regular basis. At the link, in Spanish, is my interpretation of the midterm elections. It has been an occasionally clarifying exercise to try to explain what is going on for an audience outside of the U.S. I’ll post the English below:
Populism is one of the most abused terms in the political vocabulary. Its meaning can be imprecise, its connotations unclear. It can be used to describe dissimilar politicians with different agendas and priorities. It would seem absurd to apply the term to Donald Trump—though it has often been done—given that he is a real estate con man and reality television star who ostentatiously flaunts how different he is from common people, and whose economic agenda has offered nothing more than typical plutocratic transfers to the already wealthy. But insofar as populism describes a political style based on separation of a supposedly authentic “people” and a parasitic “elite,” there is something of this in Trump’s political personality. Rather than seeking to pacify political conflict, the populist polarizes society and political identity, while trying to retain the larger share of the political community. What is sinister about Trump’s particular strategy—conscious or not—is that he polarizes society, but has never had an actual majority, only a political one due to various counter-majoritarian features of the U.S. electoral system. His is a populism of an aggrieved minority—which is actually made up of socially privileged conservative white Christians—people who are not in fact disadvantaged by law or social convention. But the fact that it is a minority populism explains much of its strategy of constant lying (even about the size and nature of his victory), and a reliance on allied media networks and social media to communicate this unreality.
Since the of his inauguration, many Americans have been eager to resist what he represents and what he has done in office. Through marches and mobilization they have expressed that discontent. But the 2018 midterm elections represented the first majority opportunity to express that opposition by ballot. It is normal for the party of the president to lose ground in his first midterm: turnout is higher in presidential years, so midterm electiosn favor the most motivated and organized, which is typically the party out of power. In this case, there was a special urgency, as many hostile to Trump feel that some measure of democracy itself was at stake in the results. The necessary victories were made, with the Democratic party retaking control of the House of Representatives in spite of structural disadvantages. Yet the political logic of Trumpism was not broken.
The weeks leading up to the election reinforced the dramatic polarization of American society. On October 6th, the Senate approved Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, after contentious hearings in which Kavanaugh was credibly accused of sexual assault as a young man, and responded by calling it a “calculated and orchestrated political hit.” Kavanaugh’s confirmation was met with protests and anguish in many parts of the country, but Republican voters seem to have approved. Trump was pleased with Kavanaugh’s performance, tweeting that the Democrats “search and destroy strategy is disgraceful.”
In the days leading up to the election, the White House and the right-wing media focused intently on a problem of pure invention: the supposed danger of a migrant “caravan” leaving Honduras. Several thousand people banded together for protection from the many dangers of the journey, planning to legally request asylum on arriving at the U.S. border. Thought the caravan remained thousands of miles from the U.S. border, the right-wing media gave the story daily attention. Trump acted like it represented a national emergency. “Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border. Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” he tweeted. He ordered troops to the border. Many of his followers were convinced that it was an orchestrated invasion of the United States, financed, it was whispered, by Democrats or by the philanthropist George Soros.
It was in that environment that bombswere mailed to prominent Democratic figures, including Barack Obama and Soros. The would-be bomber (none of the packages exploded) was found in a van covered with pro-Trump stickers. Once again, the right-wing media resisted any argument that the toxic politics of Trump, in which he derides opponents and labels the media the “enemy of the people,” could have contributed to the man’s actions. Instead, they spread conspiracy theoriesthat, against all evidence, suggested that the bomber might have been a “false-flag” attack staged to help Democrats. The anti-Semitic overtones of the conspiratorial logic led another man to enter a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh and murder 11 people on October 27, calling out “all Jews must die” while firing.
One of the big lies of the Trump administration has been his insistence that he won not only the presidency, but also the popular vote: his rhetorical identification with “the people” probably depends on it, so he lies baldly, positing that millions and millions of the votes for Democrats were cast illegally. Voter fraud is in fact vanishingly rare in the United States, typically accidental, and statistically meaningless. Prohibited by the Constitutional amendments guaranteeing equal protection from actively discriminating on the basis of race, Republicans around the country have in recent years used the excuse of trying to stop fraud to design laws that make it more difficult for the poor and minority voters who tend to favor Democrats to cast ballots. In addition, have designed voting districts to try to minimize Democratic representation—and the design of the Senate going back to the founding of the country apportions two senators to each state, regardless of population, which favors sparsely-populated, rural, and typically conservative states. (Democratic California, for example, with its population of nearly 40 million, has representation equal to that of Republican Wyoming in the Senate, with its population of approximately 600,000.)
All of this context made Tuesday’s midterms feel like one of the most consequential non-presidential elections in American history. Many Trump voters are convinced that he stands between them and the destruction of American civilization. Many Democrats are convinced, this time based on considerable evidence, that it is Trump and the Republican party that are a deep threat even to the basic functioning of democracy in the United States. Even some conservative intellectuals, like Max Boot, have decided that enough is enough, and urged voters in advance of the midterms to “vote against all Republicans.” Democratic voters donated to political campaigns across the country, and there was a wave of voter outreach reminiscent of 2008. Obama himself reappeared to campaign for Democrats, and across the country volunteers went door-to-door, made phone calls, and used text messaging to find voters and encourage them to participate.
The Democrats did well. On the ballot were many governorships and state-level offices as well as ballot initiatives in which voters could approve or decline specific changes to state laws. At the national level, voters could choose every member of the House of Representatives (who serve two-year terms), and one third of the Senate (where the terms are six years). Democrats made substantial gains, flipping several governorships and approximately 35 seats in the House, taking control of the body from Republican control. (In the Senate, most of the seats in play were in states favorable to Republicans, and the Democrats actually lost seats.) Democrats gained ground in the Midwest, where Trump did surprisingly well in 2016. Democrats were dominant in Michigan and did well in Wisconsin, where voters removed the Republican governor who, in 2011, stripped collective bargaining rights from public unions. In the West, Colorado elected the first openly gay governor in U.S. history. Across the country, many of the victorious Democrats candidates were women, members of racial minorities, or members of the LGBT community.
With control of the House of Representatives, the Democratic party will now have the power to conduct oversight of the executive branch, including to subpoena documents related to Trump’s financial corruption and its possible connection to Russian support for his campaign in 2016, currently the subject of an investigation by former F.B.I. director Robert Mueller. Perhaps fearing the consequences of this, the day after the election Trump fired his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who shares Trump’s anti-immigrant nationalism but had recused himself from interfering in the Mueller investigation. But without control of the Senate, Democrats have no hope of passing meaningful legislation—nor will they be able to stop any future Supreme Court nominees in the event that a death or resignation leaves a vacancy on the court—that is the work of the Senate. The House will have an oversight and investigatory function, and there is likely much to investigate. The House could theoretically initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump, but conviction and removal would require a 2/3 majority in the Senate.
At the same time, the midterms leave plenty of questions for Democrats. The positive results validate the anti-Trump organizing that has emerged almost since the day of his election, but they also show the power of Republican efforts to suppress voter turnout. Three state-level campaigns that generated national attention might have gone the other way if not for such efforts. Democrat Beto O’Rourke challenged Republican incumbent Ted Cruz for his Senate seat in Texas, and came within a couple of points. In Georgia and Florida, African-American candidates Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum came so close to defeating Republicans for governorships that recounts are underway. In all three places, voter registration is difficult, and many in minority communities faced intimidatingly long voting lines on a workday. In Florida, ballot initiative to restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences passed with approximately 60% of the vote. This law could affect nearly one in ten Florida adults, and nearly one in four African-American men in the state. Whatever the outcome of Gillum’s race, it is clear enough that if not for Florida’s extreme policies of felony disfranchisement, he would likely be governor today. (Not to mention that Al Gore would have been elected president over George W. Bush in 2000.)
The task ahead for Democrats is the restoration of small-d democracy: the expansion and restoration of voting rights, the creation of independent boards to determine the boundaries of electoral districts rather than partisan ones (initiatives mandating this passed in several states), and oversight of the criminal behavior in the White House. Republicans used power at all levels after the 2010 census (which is carried out on a decennial basis and determines electoral districts and the apportionment of federal funding to them) to tilt the map in their favor, and Democrats did what they could to overcome those disadvantages. Democrats will need to retain power in 2020 and try to create a fairer and more representative voting system in the future, so that the party that represents a majority of the country has a chance to exercise that power.
But if Tuesday produced a reasonably good result for the Democratic Party and the validated the anti-Trump work that many have been doing, both in and out of the Democratic Party, for the last two years, the result was also sobering. At least two more years of struggle seem to be in order, and some of the younger and more charismatic Democrats lost their races. The Republicans who lost their seats to Democrats were frequently relatively moderate Republicans, meaning that elected Republicans, as a group, are further to the right than they were before the election. Most sobering of all is that, if the anti-Trump coalition was strongly motivated to turn out, the pro-Trump voters were too. Republican turnout was strong; they are not depressed by their president or the state of their party. On the contrary, the midterms showed that Republicans are happy with the party they now have; meaning that Trump’s white nationalism—always present and episodically dominant in the history of American politics—has consolidated control of one of the two political parties. It is less a state of exception than the normal course of affairs.
The election confirmed that the anti-Trump voters outnumber those that support him; that his populist style cleaves the public into camps in which he has the support of the minority. That means that, as a matter of political survival, Republican efforts to suppress votes will continue. And the lies will continue—as if Trump knew any other way–to sustain the alternative reality in which his supporters can imagine themselves as victims. The basic, exhausting work of confronting the political emergency remains, even before the question of what the Democrats might do with power once they regain it can be asked.