Mixed Midterm Results Reveal the Trump Paradox

The president may relish his new circumstances but both he and the Democrats must face their own political weaknesses.

President Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who won his re-election in a contentious race last night. Shutterstock/Joseph Sohm   

The results of yesterday’s midterm elections revealed a paradox in the political persona of Donald Trump. On one hand, his tireless campaigning and the intensity of his support contributed to an outcome far less damaging to his administration than it might have been. On the other hand, this masked his underlying weakness as a politician.  

President Trump actually held his own in the elections and, in doing so, established himself not just as the leader of the Republican Party but as its guiding force. The results demonstrated also that the president’s particular blend of political positions and impulses, considered so outlandish by so many when he crashed upon the political scene in the summer of 2015, have captured a significant segment of the populace. Trumpism has become an established part of the political landscape.

That’s one reason that Democrats were foiled in their hopes of delivering a major rebuke to Trump via the polls.

True, Republicans lost the House of Representatives, and that constitutes a blow to the president and his party. As a result, the war between President Trump and the political establishment will move to a new level of intensity. The new Democratic House will become a beachhead for congressional Democrats bent on initiating a sustained attack on the president.

On the other hand, Republicans gained seats in the Senate, where their margin of control in the current Congress has been a single seat. They captured seats that had been held by Democrats in Indiana, Florida, Missouri, and North Dakota but lost a seat in Nevada (final Senate numbers weren’t available as of this writing). Further, the Republicans’ House losses (projected to be somewhat north of 35 seats) were considerably fewer than the losses sustained by Bill Clinton two years into his presidency (54 seats) and sustained by Barack Obama at the same point in his (63 seats). That disparity takes on further significance when it is noted that Trump’s approval rating hovers just above 40 percent, compared to 46 percent for Clinton (per Gallup) at the same point in his presidency and 45 percent for Obama.

Thus, while Trump remains a minority president in terms of voter sentiment, he nevertheless enjoys a level of political clout that goes beyond his popularity level. His ability to turn out his base, as he did in the late campaign, attests to that. At the same time, he doesn’t seem capable of creating a governing coalition—a body of support from disparate political quarters that could fuel an expansive agenda, break the country’s current deadlock crisis, and give Americans a sense of national momentum. Trump has governed as if his sole aim has been to nurture his base, not to build upon it. And now, with the GOP loss of the House, prospects for any serious coalition-building have been dealt a harsh blow.

The result almost surely will be more political rancor, more nasty discourse, more legislative gridlock. There may be a chance that Trump could enter into negotiations with opposition Democrats on a narrow band of issues—including, as South Carolina’s Republican Senator Lindsay Graham suggested in an interview last evening, infrastructure projects, prison reform, and perhaps an immigration compromise (trading legal status for “dreamers” for the president’s cherished border wall). But that isn’t likely. For one thing, Nancy Pelosi, the likely speaker in the next Democratic House, has said she will never compromise on her opposition to the border wall. For another, it’s difficult to see prospects for any serious cooperation between the parties if House Democrats launch numerous investigations into suspected unethical or illegal activities by Trump and his team, as many prominent Democrats have threatened.  

Indeed, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, likely to become House Judiciary Chair in the new Congress, has suggested he would even use his new subpoena power to initiate an impeachment investigation into Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, recently confirmed after a nasty Senate battle over allegations of sexual misconduct when he was a teenager. Nadler, accusing Senate Republicans of having conducted a “whitewash” investigation, said he would probe the whole thing all over again. In a recent address, he also hinted at possible impeachment proceedings against the president.

While this would be incendiary in many parts of the country, it may not be the worst thing that could happen to Trump in the wake of the election results and the GOP loss of the House. This pugilistic president likes a good fight, and a group of House committee chairman operating out of control, matching Trump in outlandish behavior, could be just the kind of foil he would welcome. It also could give him an excuse for the legislative inertia that seems certain to set in over the next two years. In the meantime, Trump can protect his previous successes, such as they are, from House assaults through his veto pen as he continues his attack on the federal regulatory regimen through executive action and pursues his bold foreign policy goals without seeking much congressional assent.

In other words, Trump might relish taking on Pelosi and Nadler far more than he liked combatting outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, a member of his own party who never really got with the Trump program and chafed at his political crudity.

Meanwhile, Democrats have problems of their own. While the election served in some ways to consolidate Republican sentiment under the Trump banner, Democrats, with their new House majority, face some major internal disagreements, if not struggles. Even Pelosi’s position as putative repeat speaker seems somewhat tenuous, with a significant contingent of House Democrats saying openly that new party leadership is needed.

Essentially, the party needs to determine how it can reclaim the loyalty of the country’s vast working class, the bedrock of the Democrats’ governing coalition beginning with Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. But many party leaders seem uninterested in that challenge, preoccupied as they are with identity politics and their affinity with the country’s globalist elites.

Which gets us to the final lesson of the elections—that it did nothing to diminish or alleviate the yawning gap between the nation’s elites and its mass of ordinary citizens. Trump was elected two years ago in large measure because he discerned this gap and exploited it effectively (though of course in his usual odious way). But he hasn’t figured out a way to turn this success into a majority coalition. Nor are Democrats likely to craft a governing coalition so long as they cleave to the country’s increasingly discredited elites.

The result is ongoing political instability—rather like what we’ve been experiencing only more so.   

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is a writer-at-large for The American Conservative. His latest book is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.

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22 Responses to Mixed Midterm Results Reveal the Trump Paradox

  1. Aram Hagopian says:

    So you underscore Trumps ability as a politician but you don’t explain how. This was suppose to be a blue wave which didn’t materialize probably due to his intensive campaigning. That actually shows that he is a politician. You seem to put all the blame on Trump for political instability but none on the Democrats. The left has migrated to the far left and has not compromised one iota in the last two years but yet you seem oblivious to that in your hatred of Trump. Are you really a conservative web site?

  2. grumpy realist says:

    I suspect that blue-collar workers (including farmers) are simply discovering what a lot of other “little people” have discovered in their interactions with Mr. Trump: as soon as the photo opportunity is over, they are rejected and none of the grandiose promises made by Mr. Trump to get them to sign on the dotted line ever come true.

    To those who don’t believe me, look at what is happening to US soybean farmers and the state of Wisconsin vis-a-vis Foxconn.

  3. Brian Villanueva says:

    When liberals win, conservatives are supposed to “come together as Americans.”

    When conservatives win, liberals are supposed to “mount a Resistance”.

    Does anyone else see the problem here?

    The reason things are “less civil” today is because, for the first time in 40+ years, both sides are playing to win. As a conservative, I don’t agree with Trump about everything. But I voted for him because I’m tired of leaders like Bob Dole who were content to “lose with honor”.

    Liberals play to win, which is why they have been winning for 50 years. Trump plays to win too, which is why we’re starting to beat them for a change.

    Is it wrong to hope for a SCOTUS vacancy soon?

  4. Bob K. says:

    “Odious ways” are the best ways to exploit “the yawning gap”between the nation’s elites and its mass of ordinary citizens.”

    Populists like President Trump instinctively know how best to appeal to the populace.

  5. Brendan says:

    Are you really a conservative web site?

    Sure, but it isn’t a conventional conservative website at all — you would know that if you had researched a bit.

  6. Ronald Harwell says:

    I have to agree with this writer. The DP has had years of being on the outside and yet have not been able to pull together on any agenda as a team party. We Hate Trump is not enough and they don’t get the new blood getting into their “Party”, and worse, are not comfortable with any of them. This will play out even worse the next two years.

  7. Roy Fassel says:

    The Three Rs

    Republicans represent

    Rural
    Race
    Religion

  8. TheSnark says:

    Why is anyone surprised that Trump is not building a governing coalition? Or building the Republican Party? He has never shown the slightest interest in anything other than his own ego. He only helps the GOP insofar as it helps him. The only thing he cares about is dominating tomorrow’s news cycle.

    Building a Party or a governing coalition requires focus, hard work, and appointing good people. He’s demonstrated that he can’t do any of those things, even if we wanted to.

  9. swb says:

    Actually the democrats regularly get more votes across all the races for the senate as well as for the house races. Republicans have simply done a better job of gerrymandering districts to allow them as a minority to control government. They also do a very good job of disenfranchising voters that don’t support them.

    The democrats picked up a lot of control in the states last night so that advantage may not be as much next time around.

  10. C. L. H. Daniels says:

    The next step, if Republicans wanted to forge a true majority governing coalition that could be in place for a generation or more, is to figure out how to get minority working class voters to switch sides.

  11. CLW says:

    The acceptance by so many so-called conservatives of Trump’s incompetence, cruelty, egotism, immorality, stupidity, deceitfulness, and ignorance is shameful. While people salivate over the superficial conservative “wins” Trump has nosily accomplished, he has destroyed the GOPs credibility, integrity, and purpose at the national level for years to come. It’s time to cast Trump and Trumpism out, or burn the GOP to the ground.

  12. Wilfred says:

    Cruz beato’Rourke!

  13. One Guy says:

    Ronald Harwell, I agree. Pelosi and Feinstein are two of the worst in this area. They should have retired long ago and let the young talent rise. There is always young talent available, in both Parties.

    It’s like Joe DiMaggio playing until he was 50, and not letting Mickey Mantle develop.

  14. EliteCommInc. says:

    while I maintain it is too early to tell, I think the failure of the Republicans goes to the local campaigns, not merely whether the president was a major factor.

    I live in CA. A former Republican state . . . the current president made no difference here which way the wind was going to blow. As for holding one’s nose. Hardly, given what existed before — an ethos hidden and an ethos exposed — reality come to the surface.

  15. EliteCommInc. says:

    “As for holding one’s nose. Hardly, given what existed before — an ethos hidden and an ethos exposed — reality come to the surface.”

    just pinch a little harder.

  16. cka2nd says:

    Brian Villanueva says: “The reason things are ‘less civil’ today is because, for the first time in 40+ years, both sides are playing to win. As a conservative, I don’t agree with Trump about everything. But I voted for him because I’m tired of leaders like Bob Dole who were content to ‘lose with honor’. Liberals play to win, which is why they have been winning for 50 years. Trump plays to win too, which is why we’re starting to beat them for a change.”

    “Liberals…have been winning for 50 years.” Outside of gay and women’s rights, the last 50 years looks like defeat after defeat to me for liberals. On the economic side first: Wages stagnant for the last 40 years. A federal minimum wage that reached its inflation adjusted peak 48 or 49 years ago and has been falling behind ever since. A union movement a fraction of the size it was 40 years ago. Consolidation, concentration and/or creeping monopolization throughout virtually every sector of the economy, from retail to communications to oil and energy. Skyrocketing costs in health care and higher education, and the reversal in federal financial aid for the latter from 75% grants to 75% loans. Inflation-adjusted cuts in funding for public education, primary through higher. Rent control rolled back (Rot in Hell, Joe Bruno!) or stymied nationwide. Vastly expanded income and wealth inequality. A Democratic Party taken over by founders (Clinton, Gore) or disciples of the centrist, neo-liberal Democratic Leadership Council (Obama). Deregulation of transportation, the airlines and much more under Carter (so much so that there are libertarian paeans to Carter’s deregulation record to be found on the internet), followed by financial deregulation under Clinton, followed by the Great Recession thanks to Clinton and Bush, followed by a failure to investigate or hold accountable the financial fraudsters and swindlers by Obama and the supposed liberals of the Democratic Party. These are examples of liberals winning?!?

    On the social side of the ledger, there’s no doubt that the advancement of women in the workplace and the professions can be considered a liberal win, although some of us more proletarian-oriented folks might argue that the outlook for professional and managerial class women is far brighter than it is for working class and lower middle class women. The advances of gay rights have been a huge liberal win, although it took a fierce struggle over most of the last 50 years to get here, through the backlash of the late 70’s, the AIDS Crisis, the betrayal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and the backlash against the first stirrings of gay marriage, itself a product of the conservative wing of the gay movement, by the way. There was a LOT of pain that got us to this point, do not doubt it. But when it comes to racial liberation and justice, after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960’s, and the initial successes of the War on Poverty, we’ve seen the gradual whittling away of affirmative action policies in employment and education starting in the late 1970’s, poverty programs underfunded RELATIVE TO INFLATION (again, federal welfare benefits reached their inflation-adjusted high in the late 60’s or early 70’s), increased incarceration rates, moderate economic advances for blacks during the second Clinton term in the White House, an enormous loss of wealth from the black community during the Great Recession, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by a Supreme Court that ignored evidence gathered by a Republican congress of modern day racial discrimination in the conduct of American elections, and widespread efforts to suppress the votes of people of color to counteract spurious, unproven charges of widespread voter fraud.

    Finally, lets looks at abortion, where the “liberals are winning” and “Republicans don’t fight” meme is particularly galling. Since 2010, hundreds of laws have been passed in the states adding regulations to and limiting access to the legal medical procedure of abortion, and the number of abortion clinics has shrunk drastically. Yes, abortion is still legal, a liberal victory won almost 50 years ago. But conservatives have been winning the war to restrict and regulate abortion rights since the passage of the Hyde Amendment 42 years ago.

    Really, the fantasy that some conservatives have that they’ve been losing to liberals consistently through the presidencies of Reagan and the two Bushes, the Contract with America and Newt Gingrich, and the rise of Donald Trump on the one hand, and through the “End of Welfare,” NAFTA-passing, telecommunications spectrum giveaway and repeal of Glass-Steagall presidency of Bill Clinton and the “I’m on your side” (he said to the big banks), Obamacare Health Insurance Industry-preservation reform of health care, non-transformative presidency of Barack Obama on the other hand, is just mind-boggling and stupefying.

  17. JonF says:

    Re: Liberals play to win, which is why they have been winning for 50 years.

    You must be living in an alternate universe where Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and the midterm elections of 1994 and 2010 didn’t happen or exist.

  18. JeffK says:

    @JonF says:
    November 7, 2018 at 6:23 pm

    “Re: Liberals play to win, which is why they have been winning for 50 years.

    You must be living in an alternate universe where Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and the midterm elections of 1994 and 2010 didn’t happen or exist.”

    10 of the last 13 two-year terms for the House of Representatives the Republicans have been in the majority. 8 of the last 13 Congresses the Republicans have been in the majority in the Senate. 6 of the last 13 terms the Republicans have held the Presidency.

    But, in the views of the right, the Democrats are always the problem.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Party_divisions_of_United_States_Congresses

  19. Whine Merchant says:

    “Are you really a conservative web site?”

    Yes, TAC is a Conservative site. Thankfully, it is not a GOP mouthpiece, a Deplorable bulletin board, nor a conspiracist club house.

  20. Creme fraiche says:

    @cka2nd and @JeffK

    Yes agreed. When many conservatives talk about « winning » it sounds just as tribal and ridiculous as the social justice oriented left. @cka2nd in particular cited a number of sobering, crushing changes over the past decades that have been important for ALL workers and entrepreneurs. Right vs. left is a strange construct in that sense.

    Note that For the past 30 years biz schools teach kids to be legal, not ethical, and only build businesses to feed the ever growing monopolies, venture capitalists and oligarchs of the world. So yeah, nobody is investing in building the corner store, the local clothing brand, etc. It’s grow, be eaten or die. This, along with the growing endebtedness of the population, especially millennials, has resulted in forever financially stressed families who are forever expects to uproot themselves at the drop of a hat for the sake of « the company, » and after doing so, have the right to be fired at any moment. What is conservative about this? What about this environment builds communities up? What are communities now other than clusters of bloated investment properties?

    And you want to talk team red and blue? Please, let’s talk team US. All parties have failed. The « youth » have had enough of boomers squabbling over who was worst in 1968, or whatever.

    No, but Seriously. Gen xers are in the 50s now. Oldest Millennials in their upper 30s… we are asking everyone to grow up or please for the sake of US ALL (not red or blue), or step aside.

  21. Josep says:

    (Sorry if this is OT)
    Definition of deplore:
    1. To feel or express strong disapproval of; condemn.
    2. To express sorrow or grief over.
    3. To regret; bemoan.

    Does anyone ’round here know how and why the name “deplorable” stuck despite the root word’s negative connotations?

  22. EliteCommInc. says:

    Those of you touting Republican victories in response to the comment about a commenter supported Pres Trump, miss the inside press, the republicans he is referring to have not really representative the values or issues that one thinks of when talking about republicans who once could be considered conservative

    In my view that begins with Pres. Reagan’s advisors and thinkers — where traditional thinking changed to deal the relativism that invaded the democratic party’s politics. It’s the do what we have to to win — then once in office — we’ll fix it. The problem is once in, the fix never takes place.

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