The 2018 United States midterm elections gained global notoriety, and attention, as pundits have elevated them to be the barometer of the “Trump Phenomenon.” Ever since the announcement in the early hours of November 9, 2016, that Donald John Trump was going to be the 45th President of the United States, the sentiment of disbelief was overtaken by a sense that this was just a bad joke or some sort of a protest vote against the establishment. In either case, the expectations were that it was temporary and that a correction to the status quo ante was inevitable. Consequently, the midterm elections of 2018 would be the first real indication of the correction and whether 2016 was just an one-off result. It is safe to assess that the results of Tuesday, November 6, 2018, have without a doubt provided proof positive that the election of Donald Trump was neither a terrible joke played on the United States and the world, nor was it a momentary odd electoral blip. In fact, Mr. Trump campaigned unabashedly, and relentlessly, over the last month, turning the midterm elections into a referendum on his presidency. An overall successful strategy, as he was able to limit the damage suffered in previous midterm elections by his predecessors.
Following Tuesday’s results, Mr. Trump has been able to solidify his presence in the political landscape, pushing back on the initial assessment of his election being a temporary electoral anomaly. He has been able to further enhance his position within the Republican Party, and by some analysts he has overtaken the party. He has been able to claim a working class constituency, which was identified as Reagan-Democrats, 30 years ago, and George W. Bush’s Joe sixpack, from 15 years ago. In this manner, Mr. Trump has been able to put together a winning platform combining the global unease of the industrial worker, with the impending loss of white American privilege or “exceptionalism.” He has been able to also master the delivery system of the message by utilizing his life-long skill of “selling.” President Trump is the ultimate salesman/political agent in a political system where politics is a consumer good. He has mastered the environment of “reality” television and social media, and has effectively delivered his message/platform. Both of these means of communication require one main attribute, which overwhelms all other necessary attributes to be successful, namely celebrity. According to a number of psychology and business experts a successful salesperson requires empathy, ability to listen, intelligence and ability to infer, emotional stability, patience, self awareness and high emotional intelligence. These are all characteristics that Mr. Trump does not seem to posses yet he has been able to overcome these shortcomings and become very effective in energizing the entire political system. Even though the turnout for the elections was not even 50% of the eligible voters it was the highest turnout since 1966 midterm elections.
The overall assessment of the midterm elections is that the Trump presidency is not an electoral glitch, rather it is part of the evolution of the American mass democracy influenced by the rapid global transformations in economics, finance and communications. Mr. Trump is the prototype of the celebrity/political agent that mass-democracies will require to be able to aggregate voice and policy. The elections didn’t have a single winner or loser, rather we now have a successful prototype this may maybe will be relevant lesson for 2020. The most effective challenger to President Trump will have to be able to imitate his methods, thus making the Beto O’Rourke in Texas, the best option in 2020, but the worst option for electoral party politics.
Even though votes are still being counted and recounted, a week after the election, which by the way points to the dire polarization of the electorate, the political outcome is reflected by a divided Congress. The Democrats will set the agenda in the 435-member House of Representatives, while the Republicans will rule the 100-member Senate. This is a significant outcome in many ways, not least of which, pointing to the demographic fragmentations within the country: Gender; Race; Age; Education; and Urban versus Rural. In all of these categories the results of 2018 mirror the results of 2016, while Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, Donald Trump won the Electoral College and the Presidency. Maintaining and enhancing the Republican numbers in the Senate is a significant accomplishment for Mr. Trump as he has been able to reverse the electoral trend, Presidents with less than 50% approval tend to lose the Senate during midterm elections.
Furthermore, he has been able to replace some of his Republican critics in the Senate, with Republican Senators that have been elected under his agenda and with his support. The increase in the Senate will allow the Republicans to continue to appoint socially conservative judges on the Federal level, and quite possibly get another chance to further the conservative character of the Supreme Court. Despite all the criticisms, Trump has been able to deliver on a 40-year strategic goal of evangelical conservatives, namely to establish a conservative a conservative Supreme Court. A significant point towards Mr. Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, as he is able to deliver on promises made to a loyal constituency.
On the side of the House of Representatives, control by the Democrats will limit the president’s ability as the House of Representatives controls the purse strings and has powers checking the President. This can be a difficult relationship for the President over the next two years, especially as it relates to investigations to political and personal improprieties. This particular, however, will try to change the agenda, and I suspect with continued personal attacks, especially towards Nancy Pelosi, especially if she is reelected Speaker of the House. Nancy Pelosi is a personality that brings out the same antipathy among Trump’s constituency as Hillary Clinton. We have witnessed in the past the so called “double down” effect, meaning Trump goes on the offensive, rather than retreat to a defensive posture. The American electorate has increasingly become conservative since the Clinton administration, and parochial and insecure since September 11, 2001, the current landscape in the three branches of government reflects both of these trends, with the overlay of identity politics, which is the battle that has been raging since 1968.
It is very clear that the electoral system in the United States is continuing its decades-long transformation, which began with Reagan and the implementation of the neoliberal agenda. George H.W. Bush, has been the only one term-president since 1980, and he had openly opposed the Reagan agenda in 1980. In fact Democrat Bill Clinton was a better representative of the Reagan vision than George H.W. Bush. As I mentioned earlier the electoral base has become increasingly conservative, emphasizing identity as a means of equity in opportunity in market resources. Since September 11, 2001, there has been a shift toward a greater parochialism due to the costs of war decade-long wars. The electoral outcome has been the erosion of the Democrats and Republicans two-party system, as the ultimate expression of political voice. The election of Barack Obama, the emergence of the Tea Party, the emergence of Bernie Sanders and the election of Donald J. Trump are examples of the same transition process. The painting of the electoral map simply in a red/blue binary is not accurate, and it’s only at this point wishful thinking. Unfortunately political advocacy has become a consumer good and as such we consume it individually and on the basis of changing identity cohorts. The failure of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton in 2016 and the rise of charismatic/celebrity personalities in both ends of the political spectrum are indications of an electoral system that is still seeking a new center. The margins are razor-thin between the red and the blue camps, yet the rhetoric is miles apart. The 2020 elections are yet to be determined, meaning the incumbent still has the advantage.
* Petros Vamvakas, Associate Professor of Political Science; Department of Political Science and International Studies