The Democrat's midterm wins spell the end of Trump's dream run

by Paul Thomas / 18 November, 2018
Illustration by Anthony Ellison.

Illustration by Anthony Ellison.

RelatedArticlesModule - Democrats midterm trump

Far from being Trump’s near-“complete victory”, the midterms mean opportunities for rigging US electoral boundaries have swung back towards the Democrats. 

There was a blue wave in the US midterm elections. It wasn’t tidal but nor was it a ripple. (They do things differently in America: the conservative Republicans are the red party; the centre-left Democrats are the blue party.)

Notwithstanding President Donald Trump’s compulsive self-aggrandisement and decades-long assault on the concept of objective truth, his claim that the midterms were “very close to a complete victory” for the Republicans must have perplexed the party’s number-crunchers.

The Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and should end up gaining about 40 seats, their best performance for 44 years. They also won seven governorships and close to 400 state legislative seats, thereby flipping eight legislative chambers. On the back of winning the popular vote by 7%, the Democrats took full control of state governments in Colorado, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, New York and Nevada, gained a share of power in Kansas, Michigan and New Hampshire and ended Republican super-majorities in Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Given the nature of the 35 seats in play, winning the Senate was always likely to be a bridge too far. The Republicans may well increase their majority in the upper chamber, although the final result hinges on a few very tight races, notably in Florida, which looks set for the sort of lawyers’ benefit that followed the “hanging chads” fiasco in the state’s 2000 presidential election vote count and ultimately delivered the presidency to George W Bush.

As polling guru Nate Silver pointed out, the 2018 electoral map bears a much closer resemblance to 2012, when Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney, than 2016, when Trump overcame Hillary Clinton. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the states that effectively sent Trump to the White House, moved emphatically back into the blue column: the Democrats won Michigan by 7%, Wisconsin by 8% and Pennsylvania by 10%. Their strong showing in the sun belt may have opened up a new front in 2020, with the results suggesting that Arizona, North Carolina, Texas and perhaps even Georgia can no longer be considered Republican bankers.

Where there was a sense of let-down, it reflected a yearning for a seismic event that would’ve turned US politics on its head and left Trump a cornered rat in a gilded cage. The yearning was understandable but unrealistic in that it didn’t take into account the country’s polarisation, Trump’s hold over his base and an electoral playing field tilted in the Republicans’ favour.

Hillary Clinton is grilled over the Benghazi attack. Photo/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton is grilled over the Benghazi attack. Photo/Getty Images

The home of the Gerrymander

The Senate, in which Alaska (estimated 2017 population 739,795) has as many representatives as California (estimated 2017 population 39.54 million) is the ultimate gerrymander: a key institution at the heart of government in which sparsely populated, rural states – old, white, religious, conservative America – exercise power and influence out of all proportion to their size and contribution.

The Democrats’ success in state-level races positions them to have a decisive say in the electoral “redistricting” that takes place every 10 years following the census. The next census is in 2020. As USA Today put it, “With Democratic candidates for governor and state lawmaker winning in several key states, the party broke the monopolies that redrew the political map after the 2010 census – maps that have given the GOP an advantage in every election in the years since.”

Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the Republican map drawn up after the last census and drew its own. In these midterms, the Democrats won districts in Pennsylvania they hadn’t won since 2010.

The loss of the House of Representatives means the capacity for Congressional Republicans to run interference for Trump by slow walking, stone-walling or simply ignoring attempts to hold him to account is significantly diminished.

There’s no better illustration of a party’s ability to use chairmanships of and majorities on key House committees to hound their opponents than the Benghazi investigation. In 2012, Islamist militias attacked two US diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya. Two US diplomats and two CIA contractors were killed. Attacks on American diplomatic posts are nothing new: in the 20 years before the Benghazi incidents, there’d been 21 major assaults on US diplomatic outposts, not one of which was deemed to warrant a Congressional investigation.

But the Republicans saw an opportunity to put the heat on Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time and the presumptive 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. They convened a select committee whose investigation lasted longer than those into Pearl Harbour, the Iran-Contra scandal, 9/11 and the intelligence failures and deceit that paved the way for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

You could say the investigation went nowhere in that it failed to unearth any evidence of dereliction of duty, wrongdoing or even backside covering, beyond the Washington norm, on Clinton’s part. That would be to miss the point: it wasn’t an investigation, it was a deliberately protracted show trial with the declared aim of crippling Clinton’s candidacy. With a little help from Clinton and her friends, fair-weather and otherwise, and the media who covered the process as if it was something other than an obvious travesty, it by and large succeeded.

The only similarities between the Benghazi investigation and the House intelligence committee’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign is that in both cases the Republicans predetermined the outcome and were untroubled by the brazen cynicism of the exercise. Thus, in April, the intelligence committee, chaired by Trump lickspittle Devin Nunes, concluded that there was no evidence of collusion, case closed.

Vladimir Putin. Photo/Getty Images

Vladimir Putin. Photo/Getty Images

Democrats on the committee dissented, none more vociferously than Adam Schiff, who is poised to succeed Nunes when the new Congress convenes in January. Schiff has stated that his top priority will be to revive the investigation and expand it to look into whether Russia has leverage over Trump via his business empire. Trump-watchers have long speculated that he was able to bounce back from multiple bankruptcies by allowing Trump Inc to become a money-laundering operation for the Russian mafia.

House Democrats have also declared their intention to demand Trump’s tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service. They could probably do that because they can do just about anything: demand any document, summon any witness, ask any question. Trump has obfuscated over why he hasn’t released his tax returns like every other presidential candidate in the past 40 years, even though, in recent history, no major US political figure’s tax returns were more pertinent and publication more emphatically in the public interest. His latest excuse is that “people wouldn’t understand them”. I suspect the Democrats are prepared to take that risk.

Trump will, of course, fight fire with fire. He has repeatedly demonstrated that he views run-of-the-mill criticism, public protest and the democratic system’s checks and balances as disrespectful affronts, bordering on treason. His behaviour virtually confirms the assumption that he has something, perhaps lots of things, to hide; his career is littered with reminders that he’ll go to extreme lengths to avoid being held to account.

His first act after the midterms was to sack Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an early Trump booster who made the mistake of acting on Justice Department advice that he should recuse himself from oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election. For Trump, loyalty flows upwards and essentially entails a willingness to do whatever it takes to protect him. Sessions was replaced by Matt Whitaker, a manifestly unqualified conservative ideologue whose public criticisms of the Mueller probe often echoed @realDonaldTrump.

Matt Whitaker: Mueller probe critic.

The cause and effect behind Sessions’ dismissal after months of public disparagement and Whitaker’s appointment are so obvious that they might amount to obstruction of justice. Some lawyers, including Republicans such as Trump counsellor Kellyanne Conway’s husband, George, believe Whitaker’s appointment is unconstitutional since he hasn’t been approved by the Senate.

Not that Trump gives a damn. He instinctively grasps that a certain sort of person, heavily represented in his base, finds his disdain for protocol, convention and rules – written and unwritten – exhilarating, whereas a different sort of person, heavily represented in the political establishment and mainstream media, is dumbfounded and dismayed by his ability to break every rule and get away with it.

With a survival instinct honed by decades of pushing legal and accounting envelopes, Trump senses that politics offers his last, best hope of getting away clean. There’s an irony here since he clearly despises the democratic process, doesn’t enjoy being President and, deep down, probably rues the day he decided to get semi-serious about running for the office.

If he hadn’t become President, he wouldn’t be facing Mueller’s and future investigations. He could’ve carried on with his schemes and scams and reality-show existence without upright public servants and political enemies wanting to shine a light into every dark nook and cranny of TrumpWorld.

New Yorkers oppose Matt Whitaker’s appointment. Photo/Getty Images

New Yorkers oppose Matt Whitaker’s appointment. Photo/Getty Images

Presidential rain check

Last weekend, in France, Trump showed that he regards even the ceremonial aspects of his role as burdensome. Imagine the outpouring of right-wing disgust if Obama had skipped a wreath-laying ceremony at a military cemetery because he didn’t fancy getting wet. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that he has no interest in government or policy. A Politico review of his schedule for the week October 22 to 26 found that he spent a grand total of two hours in policy discussions. Obama spent six or seven hours a day in policy meetings. Trump’s working days began late morning and up to nine hours a day were set aside for what’s termed “executive time” – time spent tweeting, phoning friends and watching television.

But Trump can’t walk away because he’d lose the legal privileges and ability to influence public opinion the presidency confers. His overriding imperative is the opposite – stay in office as long as possible – hence he’s already running for re-election. Spending the next two years in semi-permanent campaign mode will mean abrogating his responsibilities, abusing the office and ripping off the taxpayer, but needs must when the devil drives.

If he wins in 2020, he’ll deploy the defence used by Bill Clinton and his supporters during the Monica Lewinsky scandal: that by re-electing someone they had every reason to believe was a serial adulterer, the American people made it clear they didn’t care about his sexual indiscretions.

Then he’ll hunker down, using the powers of the presidency to obstruct, delay, frustrate and sabotage investigations on the not unreasonable assumption that, when he finally leaves the White House, his pursuers and the nation will be exhausted and/or thoroughly sick of the whole business: no matter how many of the issues and controversies swirling around him are unresolved, there’ll be little appetite for pursuing a 781/2-year-old couch potato.

The midterms results suggest it won’t be easy to pull off.

This article was first published in the November 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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