Trump can still win in 2020
The midterm results will increase the tension in Washington, says Paul Demarty, presenting the left with dangers and opportunities
The most remarkable thing about the midterm results, at first blush, is that they are quite unremarkable.
For once, the pollsters got it pretty much dead-on. The Republicans keep the Senate and, as I write, look set to gain a couple of seats; the House, meanwhile, has fallen to the Democrats - the core blue vote rejuvenated in adversity. Still more remarkable is that this is not only what the pollsters predicted, but pretty routine as a matter of the American electoral cycle: the president’s party tends not to do well in the midterms, thanks to the executive tilt of the American constitution and (despite its small-R republican heritage) the American psyche - too many hopes are put in the Big Man at the top, leading inevitably to disillusionment. The election of president Donald Trump promised an end to ‘politics as usual’, to the exhilaration of his supporters and the mounting horror of his opponents, but it seems that ‘politics as usual’ is a tougher ghost to exorcise - not a flunky to be theatrically fired on television.
In most other respects, of course, the midterms have highlighted the morbidity of the American body politic. The late phases of the campaign presented a stark picture of its current state of relentless tension. After a series of rightwing terrorist atrocities, a very precise dance was played out between the two parties. Firstly, Republicans lined up to condemn the actions of what were very definitely isolated individuals; meanwhile, Democrats and progressives hammered on the impeccable Trumpite credentials of Cesar Sayoc, Robert Bowers and co. Trump could not possibly be expected to stick to that script, and instead - as is his wont - upped the ante, amplifying his chauvinist bile: the target on this occasion being the famous ‘caravan’ of destitute Honduran migrants inching its way towards the US-Mexican border. Trump made a show of deploying troops to reinforce the border, despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing for them to do there. The crowds, of course, went wild. Democrats then changed tack, presumably despairing of another piss into the national-chauvinist hurricane, and spent most of the final days hammering away at healthcare and other ‘bread and butter’ issues.
So to the division of spoils. The Republicans keep hold of the Senate. They will be cheered particularly by the offloading of Democratic senators in otherwise red states, like Missouri and Indiana: a sign that Trump’s core-vote strategy - such as it is - is a goer, and that the Democrats are still having a very hard time of it in so-called ‘flyover country’ (though they picked up a handful of state governorships, which should at least arrest the tide of rampant gerrymandering in those places). This was enough for Trump to consider Tuesday night a victory and a vindication - there was a typically upbeat assessment from him, which we will comment on below.
The Democrats get the House, but narrowly (as we go to press, with one or two counts still to come in, many of which look narrowly Republican so far). It is a prize of a sort, and allows them plenty of opportunities to make mischief against Trump. We need only to think back to the ordeals of Bill Clinton with a Republican-controlled congress determined to sabotage him. While Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, is proffering a pro forma olive branch and promises a saintly focus on a positive legislative agenda, hostilities are likely to resume pretty promptly. Assuming the elected members have any fight in them, we can expect congressional investigations into Trump’s sordid business history, obstruction of key legislation and so on.
The thinness of the margin (as things look now) will be a problem - rightwing Democrats, who feel under pressure on migration, for example, can hardly be expected to put up much of a fight. But the bare fact of the matter is that the Republicans have failed to kill Obamacare and build Trump’s wall, as it was - with majorities in both houses. It will hardly be easier now. Expected, but also welcome, is the addition of two Democrats who are ‘socialists’ - by American standards anyway - in the form of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan, supporters of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Trump has already claimed victory, as we noted, on his favoured means of communication. We should stress that this is not simply delusional. To put things in perspective, the Republicans look to have made a net loss of 27-30 seats in the House, and gained at least two in the Senate. In 2010, the same way into Barack Obama’s first term, the Democrats suffered a net loss of 63 in the House and six in the Senate, losing control of the former and the ability to obstruct the filibuster in the latter. If Tuesday’s vote was a ‘referendum on Trump’, then 2010’s was certainly a ‘referendum on Obama’, and Trump seems to have done rather better than Obama did. Obama, of course, went on to victory in 2012.
A more polite president than Trump, after such a result, would have thanked activists, wrung his hands about hearing the message of the people and the need to reconnect with ordinary Americans or some such folderol, and privately expressed relief that things did not go too badly. That is not Trump’s style, so we get fog-horn triumphalism instead.
The Democrats will nevertheless take heart at a tactical victory - long awaited after the last two years of calamity. The trouble is that they are themselves an unstable coalition under severe strain. The humiliation by Trump of the neoliberal-imperialist mainstream of the party - structurally unassailable due to the total corruption of the national political machine - could only plunge the whole thing into crisis, and so it has proven. Meanwhile, the DSA - previously merely one of many ‘grassroots’ ginger groups on the progressive wing of the party - has ballooned in size, such that ever increasing numbers of what would once have been self-identified ‘progressive Democrats’ are now calling themselves socialist, or at least not acting in horror if the word is hurled at them as an insult. Ocasio-Cortez’s shock selection ahead of a complacent neoliberal incumbent, in particular, has put the Clintonites on notice that their foot soldiers are rather in the mood for fragging.
The one thing that unites both wings is hatred of the Commander in Chief. The rightwing Democrats deplore the damage he is doing to America’s carefully constructed multilateral world order. The leftwing Democrats deplore his appointment of open saboteurs to the government agencies that actually do anything useful, his implied warmongering against Iran, and his kleptocratic handouts to Wall Street. Both deplore his racist clownery, although the left has rather scandalised the right by raising the demand for the abolition of the US immigration police altogether.
If the mainstream Democrats were simply in charge, then here is how things might be expected to play out. The next two years would consist of Democratic attacks in a sort of low-intensity-warfare style, relentless obstructionism focused on Trump’s moral character and his competence (and on racism). Trump can hardly be expected to play sandbag, however. He would denounce right back, blame congressional Democrats for the failure to get his wall built, declare them enemies of the people, and so on. The numbers do not look nearly good enough for impeachment, so the outcome of all that would be a Trump 2020 campaign with every chance of success.
In the coming months and years, there will be enormous pressure on the Democratic left, including its soi-disant socialist wing, to pull together to deal with this ogre. The price of unity, of course, will have to be paid entirely by the left - no more talk of ‘Abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement’! - thereby robbing them of their independent profile altogether. At the end of it all, Trump may still be re-elected anyway; but a far more precious prize - the end of the tutelage of the American left to the liberal faction of Wall Street - will have been squandered.
The march of national-chauvinist reaction has unfortunately made this deal seem more attractive. We see, closer to home, the sorry spectacle of ‘socialists’ employed as spear carriers for Tony Blair, Chuka Umunna and George Soros (‘employed’ here meant absolutely literally in some cases) - a sacrifice of credibility they have made in order to bring about a second Brexit referendum, which is desperately unlikely to happen anyway. Their panic allowed them to be taken to the cleaners by a sorry coalition of Blairites and billionaires, in return for which they will get diddly-squat.
American politics, as we saw at the outset, is in a cycle - a rather vicious one at the moment: one of Yeats’s widening gyres. Getting out of the cycle means providing an alternative to capitalism, which in turn means being prepared to lose the common caucus with Wall Street Democrats altogether. To hide from Trump within the skirts of the liberal bourgeoisie is to ignore how we got Trump in the first place, and vote for the tail of Ouroboros instead of his head.