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.
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.