Americans are divided – but no longer complacent
The 2018 US midterm elections were a referendum on President Trump and in the aftermath, only one truth is crystal clear. America is divided. Americans have voted against Trump, and Americans have voted for Trump.
This division is likely to infect US politics for the next two years. Some of this division will now be given actual political expression in Congress. But it will also be played out across America.
Two areas stand out. One is trade. Americans may well experience a deepening trade war and suffer its costs very differently. If this happens, trade will become an important issue in the 2020 presidential elections.
But the second and more pervasive area to watch will continue to be America’s culture wars. Here, division runs deeper than even the number of Republicans and Democrats in the House or Senate suggest. A record number of over 100 women have been elected to the House of Representatives, including the first openly gay Native American woman. Moderate and progressive Democrats will continue to battle over the party’s agenda.
For the Republican Party, there could be a moment to consider whether their very close attachment to Trump’s agenda and his unconventional style may have muted gains which could have been stronger given robust economic growth, job creation and rising hourly wages. That Trump’s campaign strategy played on a fear of immigration, not economic success, is partly driven by the reality that many ordinary Americans see tax cuts as primarily benefiting wealthy Americans. Today, America remains the most unequal country in the world.
For two years, Europeans have debated America’s new role as an international disruptor. Those more sanguine have assumed that a series of idiosyncratic factors landed Trump in the White House, and that America’s attacks on internationalism would pass.
These elections did not settle this debate, but they did show that Americans are no longer complacent – voter turnout was at record levels for midterm elections and many key issues that mobilized Americans like immigration and the economy have global implications.
So the dominant strategy for Europe may be to kick the can down the road, and wait this president out. There are signs that things may change in 2020.
Elections will do little to alter policy on contentious international issues
For once the polls were right. There was no ‘blue wave’ in yesterday’s midterms but nor was it the ‘tremendous success’ which President Trump claimed for himself and the Republicans.
With Democrats now in charge of the House, there is every prospect of gridlock on the legislative front, including the budget. Where he can, the president will use executive orders to advance his agenda, as President Obama did before him. But that will only take him so far.
Trump will be more concerned at the prospect of the Democrats holding hearings, with ‘caravans’ of subpoenas, into all aspects of administration policy and behaviour, with the benefit of the conclusions of the Mueller-led FBI enquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. The new committee chairs are already raring to go – and looking forward to seeing the president’s tax returns.
Democrats have the option too of beginning impeachment proceedings, as Republicans did to President Clinton two decades ago, but that is not currently their top priority.
As Trump’s focus shifts towards winning a second term in 2020 – a genuine possibility, absent seriously damaging revelations from Mueller – we can look forward to the president-candidate simultaneously taking credit for all that is going well and blaming the Democrat-controlled House when they don’t.
The rest of the world will still have to deal with ‘America First’. The change of majority in the House will do little to alter US policy on issues where America’s allies have differed with Trump, like climate change, Middle East peace, trade policy, Iran, Russia and the importance of international institutions.
Iran, the object of new US sanctions this week, is a particular bone of contention. With the Trump administration determined to apply the sanctions extraterritorially to the partners and allies who were co-signatories three years ago of the nuclear deal Trump rejected, there will be fresh impetus behind attempts to create an alternative international payments system that isn’t dependent on the dollar – and US unilateralism.
Transatlantic alliances are fraying. That’s only good for bad actors with their own reasons for weakening those links.
Trump’s divisive tactics on immigration backfired
In the weeks leading up to the election, President Trump drove fears of an invasion of foreigners crossing the US-Mexico border – tweeting repeatedly that the so-called ‘caravan’ of migrants would bring a wave of criminals and terrorists to America’s borders, despite evidence that the group is largely composed of relatively small group of desperate people.
This has been a familiar refrain in the Trump campaign. In 2016, Trump successfully persuaded many voters that building a wall was a reasonable policy solution to managing unauthorized migration, despite historically low numbers of border apprehensions, and intelligence that the most serious national security concerns would never be mitigated by a wall.
And earlier this summer, Trump implemented policies of separating Central American families from their children at the border — a tactic that exacerbated the pressures on the federal government’s resources to manage the problem and resulted in jarring images of children sleeping in cages. By all accounts, Trump was banking on the publicity as a way to shore up support from his base to sustain his anti-migration policies.
While it is too much to suggest that the midterm elections signal a sea change in support for US immigration reform, it does suggest that the president’s divisive tactics may have backfired as a campaign tactic. The early results suggest that Hispanic voting hit record highs for a mid-term election. Likewise, women, many of whom reacted negatively to the family separation crisis, voted in relatively high numbers and more often for Democrats.
Consequently, the loss of the House provides an opportunity to roll back some of the president’s anti-immigrant agenda. Department of Homeland Security officials will now be held accountable to a Democratic-controlled House. Even more importantly, the House has the primary control over the budget, so chances that the president can get the funding for some of his more extreme ideas —including the building of a wall — are now seriously in doubt.
It is highly unlikely that today’s results will lead to meaningful immigration reform — the president would need to be part of that solution — but it does suggest that Americans are seeking more sensible and humane answers and both parties would be wise to listen.
Trump is looking pretty ordinary today
America voted to put a check on Donald Trump — that’s the bottom line. By giving Democrats the speaker’s gavel in the House, voters put an end to the Republican rubber stamp and have all but guaranteed that Trump will face a tough battle-tested opponent in Nancy Pelosi as speaker. Donald Trump will try to tweet the results away in the days ahead, but yesterday the president was brought down to earth.
Indeed, he’s looking pretty ordinary right now — the fourth president in a row to endure a major midterm setback. Bill Clinton lost the House in 1994. George W Bush did in 2006. Barack Obama did in 2010. Trump has now experienced the voters’ anger and frustration with his domestic agenda and, to a lesser extent, his foreign policy agenda.
Will this force Trump to move to the centre and seek bipartisan cooperation? Yes, on some issues such as Big Pharma (cutting drug prices), infrastructure and possibly trade, though much will depend on how willing Trump is to align his proposals with Democratic ideas, and whether House Democrats think they are better off ‘messaging’ as opposed to legislating.
That said, there are also real limits on how much bipartisan cooperation we will see. As Trump’s strategy in 2016 and again in 2018 indicates, he sees polarizing the electorate as his best play for winning re-election in 2020.