Vol. 44 No. 23 · 1 December 2022

‘You think our country’s so innocent?’

Adam Shatz on the US Midterms

4086 words

The night​ before the midterms, I reread The Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer’s account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon. ‘Brood on that country who expresses our will,’ Mailer wrote:

She is America, once a beauty of magnificence unparalleled, now a beauty with a leprous skin. She is heavy with child – no one knows if legitimate – and languishes in a dungeon whose walls are never seen. Now the first contractions of her fearsome labour begin – it will go on: no doctor exists to tell the hour … she will probably give birth, and to what? – the most fearsome totalitarianism the world has ever known? Or can she, poor giant, tormented lovely girl, deliver a babe of a new world brave and tender, artful and wild? Rush to the locks. God writhes in his bonds. Rush to the locks. Deliver us from our curse. For we must end on the road to that mystery where courage, death, and the dream of love give promise of sleep.

I spent much of the night brooding on the impending birth of the United States of QAnon. A Republican sweep seemed inevitable. The president’s party usually gets clobbered in midterm elections. Despite all Biden’s achievements – high employment, investment in infrastructure, a historic climate change bill – his approval ratings were in the low forties, as if the only things Americans could remember about him were his stammering delivery and the chaos of the (otherwise popular) withdrawal from Afghanistan. The polls, unreliable as ever (this was one thing Trump got right), told us that high inflation and anxiety about crime were going to provoke a Republican tsunami. Afterwards, Republican legislators and election-denying secretaries of state (the chief election officials in US elections) would join forces to prevent the Democrats from winning in 2024 – or ever again. The country appeared to be careening towards constitutional crisis, and the other side had all the guns.

The extremist Republican candidates whom Trump had hand-picked, often by shouting down the warnings of other party leaders, served up a violent cocktail of election denial, ‘border protection’, ‘great replacement’ theory, Second Amendment rights, and attacks on critical race theory and transgenderism, occasionally spiked with antisemitism. But the most frightening part of their rhetoric was its triumphalism: they were confident of victory. So was everybody else. ‘I’ll admit it,’ Michelle Goldberg wrote in the New York Times. ‘I let the right, and political analysts who were listening to the right, psych me out.’

But the ‘red wave’ did not materialise. Instead, the Democrats pulled off the strongest midterm showing by a party occupying the White House in two decades. While they lost the House, the Republican majority is wafer-thin. Most of the candidates backed by Trump lost – including, crucially, the election-denying secretary of state candidates. And the Democrats held on to their majority in the Senate and might even increase it if Raphael Warnock prevails over Herschel Walker, a Republican former football star, in the Georgia run-off on 6 December. (That Walker is regarded as a plausible candidate is one of the strange fruits of the Trump era.) The Senate majority will be indispensable to Biden’s most important task over the next two years: nominating federal judges, after Trump stacked the deck with ‘originalist’ conservatives.

In the swing state of Pennsylvania (the fifth most populous in the country), John Fetterman, a left-leaning Democrat and a strong supporter of marijuana legalisation and criminal justice reform, defeated a Trump-backed candidate, Mehmet Oz, by 4.6 percentage points, outperforming Biden’s result in the state in 2020; the Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro, won by 14 percentage points over another Trump favourite, Doug Mastriano, a right-wing extremist who had assailed Shapiro (‘at best a secular Jew’) for sending his kids to a ‘privileged, exclusive, elite’ Jewish day school and described abortion as a ‘barbaric Holocaust’. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s Democratic governor, who had been the target of a kidnapping conspiracy by a right-wing militia known as the Wolverine Watchman, won a second term against a Republican who opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest. In one of the most closely watched races, voters in Nevada re-elected Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina senator. Two lesbian Democrats won governorships. The greatest relief of the night was the defeat in Arizona of two of the most fanatical right-wing candidates in recent memory: Blake Masters, who campaigned for the Senate on a platform to dismantle the ‘administrative state’ and destroy ‘wokeness’ (black people, he said, were responsible for the increase in crime); and Kari Lake, a former newscaster and liberal Buddhist who remade herself as a Maga warrior and was widely hailed as a future party leader.

There were, of course, disappointments. Tim Ryan, a working-class populist who ran a strong campaign in red Ohio, lost by 6.6 points to the right-wing pseudo-populist J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir about growing up among poor whites in Appalachia that made him a darling of liberals in New York and Hollywood. Not long after Ron Howard’s adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy came out in 2020, Vance aligned himself with Trump, a man he had denounced as ‘cultural heroin’ and ‘America’s Hitler’. But the biggest blow to the Democrats came in New York State, where the Republicans flipped four congressional seats by fanning fears of crime among white suburban commuters. Although Governor Kathy Hochul managed to defeat Lee Zeldin, a right-wing Republican whose campaign was backed by Trump and subsidised by the conservative billionaire Ronald Lauder, the results in New York’s congressional elections handed the House to the Republicans and provided ‘a blueprint for Republicans to study’, as Jeffrey Blehar wrote in the National Review. The other Republican blueprint was in the now blood-red state of Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis won a second term by 20 points and was immediately anointed ‘DeFuture’ by the New York Post, much to Trump’s irritation.

Divided government will shape the rest of Biden’s term. Even so, there is a widespread feeling among Democrats that it could have been much, much worse. It seems that the majority of Americans agree on democracy and abortion rights – ‘woman, life, freedom’, to borrow the slogan of Iranian protesters. As the pollster Nate Cohn pointed out, Democrats did best in states where abortion and the legitimacy of the 2020 election results were explicitly in contention. Elsewhere, the usual midterm patterns held.

If turnout among Democrats was high, it was in large part thanks to the Supreme Court. By overturning Roe v. Wade last June, the court inflamed anxieties not just about abortion rights, but about the power of the state to meddle in people’s private lives and control their most personal decisions. Samuel Alito, a devout Catholic, claimed in the majority opinion that the judgment pertained strictly to abortion; but in a supporting opinion, Clarence Thomas suggested that the court ‘reconsider all of this court’s substantive due process precedents’, including contraception, same-sex relationships and same-sex marriage. The Dobbs decision would have been unimaginable without Trump, who appointed three reactionary justices to the court – more than any single-term president since Hoover. The midterm results were a repudiation of the right’s assault on abortion rights. As the conservative columnist and abortion opponent Ross Douthat admitted in the New York Times, the Republicans traded ‘a larger margin in the House’ for ‘a generational goal, the end of Roe v. Wade’. It will be interesting to see whether the Supreme Court, which will soon be considering an affirmative action case, will be chastened by the American public’s repudiation of Dobbs, or continue to pursue its ideological agenda.

The midterm results were also a repudiation of election denialism (the sequel to ‘birtherism’, Trump’s claim that Obama was not American but Kenyan) and an increasingly deranged and violent Republican Party. The select committee report on the events of 6 January 2021 had spelled out, for those who wished to know, precisely what happened that day, including the extent of Trump’s involvement and his encouragement of the rioters. The committee’s vice-chair, Liz Cheney, is a conservative Republican, but she performed her job with poise and determination. Although she was repaid with Republican accusations of treason, and a resounding loss in the Wyoming congressional primaries, Cheney made an impression on the portion of Republican voters afflicted with Trump fatigue, as well as on many Democrats.

If memories of 6 January were at any risk of fading, they were rekindled on 28 October, when David DePape attacked Paul Pelosi, husband of the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, with a hammer after breaking into their home in San Francisco (she subsequently announced she was standing down as Speaker). DePape shook Pelosi awake with cries of ‘Where’s Nancy?’ – the words shouted by the rioters who invaded the Capitol building – before striking him on the head when the police arrived. Pelosi suffered a fractured skull, but Republicans made light of the assault, with some insinuating that DePape was a gay escort. Glenn Youngkin, the governor of Virginia, said, with mock solemnity, ‘There’s no room for violence anywhere,’ then added: ‘But we’re going to send her back to be with him in California.’ Donald Trump Jr posted a photograph of a hammer and a pair of Y-fronts on Instagram with the caption: ‘Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready.’ Congressman Clay Higgins of Louisiana tweeted a picture of Nancy Pelosi with the line: ‘That moment you realise the nudist hippie male prostitute LSD guy was the reason your husband didn’t make it to your fundraiser.’

All of this led Biden to give one of the most sombre and unflinching speeches delivered in recent memory by an American leader. ‘Lies of conspiracy and malice,’ he said on 3 November, had produced ‘a cycle of anger, hate, vitriol, and even violence’. The survival of American democracy, he continued, was now ‘the biggest of questions … You can’t love your country only when you win.’ Much of his rhetoric sounded old-fogeyish (‘a struggle for the very soul of America itself’), but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t right about the threat. His political calculations were also sound. According to the polls, inflation and crime were the major issues for most Americans, not abortion or democracy. Yet Biden’s insistence that ‘democracy is on the ballot for us all’ resonated with many voters who were fed up with the persistence of minority rule, the furies (and the outsized power) of the far right and the normalisation of violence by political pundits and elected representatives. Whatever Biden’s approval ratings, his warnings in this speech may have helped to set the stage for the Democrats’ strong showing; so, too, did his success in restoring a modicum of civility to American political life.

Why were​ supporters of the Democrats – including seasoned election-watchers – so easily persuaded by Republican triumphalism? The polls were one reason, of course. But susceptibility to Republican hype is more directly a result of the Trump years. There is every reason to fear that Trump, or rather Trumpism, might return. It’s easy to mock MSNBC-watching liberals who rapidly resort to analogies with Germany in the 1930s (especially when analogies with episodes in American history, such as Reconstruction and the McCarthy era, are closer to hand and more illuminating). But there is little doubt that the United States has become more vulnerable to authoritarian challenges thanks to the deterioration of its democracy over the last two decades. The reasons for this decline are many but include the absence of limits on campaign finance and the overwhelming influence of corporate money, the right-wing assault on black enfranchisement and the descent of some quarters of red America into conspiratorial culture-war fanaticism.

Last June, the Berggruen Governance Index, a study of 134 countries, found that the US had seen a ‘relatively severe decline’ in both the ‘quality of democracy’ and the ‘quality of government’ since 2000. Trump didn’t create this decline, but he exploited it to win the presidency, and accelerated it while in office. When he said he knew the system was ‘rigged’ because he had benefited from it himself, he was saying something that other politicians, including most Democrats, don’t dare to admit. ‘You think our country’s so innocent?’ he asked. The last decade has seen increased polarisation at every level of society. As a recent paper for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace puts it, ‘the United States poses a particularly troubling case, as it is the only advanced Western democracy that has suffered such high levels of polarisation for such an extended period.’ America’s polarisation, it goes on, ‘is more akin to the experiences of younger, less wealthy and severely divided democracies and electoral autocracies than to those of its more consolidated democratic peers’. The dark, anarchic energies once confined to talk radio and the online alt-right – brazenly expressed racism, antisemitism, the ‘great replacement’ theory – have now flooded the political mainstream. In this landscape, Kanye West, with his fulminations about ‘the Jews’ and his ‘white lives matter’ costume, isn’t an outlier.

Even with Biden in the White House, many Democrats feel helpless. Helpless to pass gun legislation despite popular support for gun control and harrowing levels of gun violence (20,000 dead and 40,000 wounded in 2020 alone). Helpless to protect a woman’s right to an abortion. This sense of powerlessness feeds on an estrangement from and fear of white rural America. As the sociologist Arlie Hochschild has pointed out, red and blue states increasingly represent two distinct economies, and the gap between them has only grown. White men living in Republican counties earn less and have higher death rates than white men in Democratic counties. Poor rural white Americans also express less optimism about the future than equally poor black or Latino Americans, something that has made them easy prey for what Mike Davis, in one of his last interviews, called the Republican ‘death cult’. In The Storm Is Here: America on the Brink, Luke Mogelson writes that ‘one emotional feature of contemporary conflict is the ever-present, low-frequency dread of random catastrophe.’* This dread is now a staple of our increasingly existential electoral politics.

Trump’s base – and the likely base of any Trump-style movement in the future – is among whites without college degrees, even if he has succeeded in attracting some Latinos, and a small but growing number of black men. Their numbers have declined somewhat, from 45 per cent of eligible voters in 2016 to 41 per cent in 2022, and some left-wing Democratic strategists have argued in favour of simply ignoring them, either on the grounds that the party can pick up votes elsewhere, or that working-class whites are, in any case, lost for ever to the Democrats. But 41 per cent is a substantial figure, and the question remains whether more of them can be won over to a progressive alternative, and if so how. For many, John Fetterman points the way forward. He made significant inroads into rural white working-class areas that had voted for Trump, even after being visibly hobbled by a stroke six months before the election, and never veered from an unabashedly progressive platform. Even his support for ending cash bail – a position that led to the defeat of Mandela Barnes, a promising candidate for the Senate in Wisconsin – didn’t appear to hurt him. But then, as the blogger Arun Kapil noted, Barnes is black, while Fetterman, who is as tall as a basketball power forward, seems like the ‘big white dude’ you can have a few beers with at the bar, and if there’s a fight, he’ll be in it. Fetterman looks like a Maga guy, and talks like one, mocking his opponent as an elitist for using the word ‘crudité’. Democratic leaders must be wondering where they can find fifty more Fettermans.

While Democrats are racing towards Fetterman, a growing number of Republicans are running away from Trump, the biggest loser in the midterms. Since 2016, the Republicans have believed they can’t win without him, given his magnetic hold on their base. But now it seems they can’t win with him, either. ‘Republicans have followed Donald Trump off the side of a cliff,’ one of his advisers said in an interview with the New York Times. Peter King, a former Republican congressman from Long Island who cosied up to Trump, said that he ‘should no longer be the face of the Republican Party’, adding that the party ‘can’t become a personality cult’. But it already is a personality cult, and it won’t be easy to extricate itself. ‘Every year,’ Vance points out, ‘the media writes Donald Trump’s obituary. And every year, we’re quickly reminded that Trump remains the most popular figure in the Republican Party.’ Vance owes his victory to Trump, but he’s not just kissing the ring. While Trump may smell like a loser to members of the donor class who’ve already begun to desert him, and to pundits on Fox News and the National Review, it’s not clear the base has moved with them.

Undeterred, Trump announced his race for the presidency on 15 November in an hour-long speech in which he promised to save America from ‘Marxists’, ‘globalists’ and the ‘left’s platform of national ruin’. American Carnage 2.0, it was an unusually early announcement, designed partly to pre-empt his leading rival, Ron DeSantis, but also to shield Trump from further investigations into his role on 6 January and his seizure of thousands of classified files, discovered in August in an FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago. Trump is betting that the Department of Justice will find it more difficult to pursue its cases against him if he can claim they are politically motivated efforts to ensure a Biden victory in 2024.

Trump is blaming the defeat of his favoured candidates on an insufficient appetite for election denialism in the Republican Party, and lashing out at Republicans who view him as the reason for the losses (Glenn Youngkin’s surname sounds ‘very Chinese’, he wrote on his social network, Truth Social, spelling it ‘Young Kin’). He has also encouraged new conspiracy theories. When Kari Lake claimed she’d been robbed of the election (‘Arizonans know BS when they see it,’ she tweeted), Trump wrote on his Telegram channel and Truth Social: ‘Wow! They just took the election away from Kari Lake. It’s really bad out there!’

But he didn’t question the legitimacy of Republican landslide in Florida, though it seems to have angered him even more than the Republican defeats in Arizona. It was also more of a threat to his ambitions. A growing number of Republican politicians and donors now see Ron DeSantis as a safer bet than Trump in 2024. DeSantis isn’t a ‘moderate’ Republican. He boasts of having turned Florida into a ‘citadel of freedom’ against critical race theory, ‘Faucian dystopia’, ‘Soros-funded prosecutors’ and transgender athletes. Last January, he presided over a redistricting plan that eliminated half of the state’s black-dominated congressional districts by breaking them into pieces and absorbing them into white-majority districts; in September he sent two planeloads of undocumented migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, an act of political theatre Trump might have envied. But DeSantis has qualities Trump conspicuously lacks: a strong work ethic, an attentiveness to policy detail and strategic discipline. The rise of DeSantis (‘DeSanctimonious’, he calls him) makes Trump apoplectic with fury. Not only does DeSantis refuse to ‘kiss the ring’, but he is now surrounded by Republicans seeking a new king.

Biden was touring a mangrove forest in Bali with a group of G20 leaders when Katie Rogers of the New York Times asked him if he had any reaction to Trump’s announcement. ‘Not really,’ he said. This has been Biden’s way: to focus on policy and to ignore Trump as much as possible. But the threat that Trump represents obviously drives Biden. The question is whether he will step aside in 2024, as a number of Democratic strategists hope, or run for a second term. Having helped the Democrats to avoid a red wave in the midterms, Biden is in a position to make a graceful exit. He is eighty, after all, and it shows. But, buoyed by the midterm results, he seems ever more determined to run, and is said to relish the prospect of another battle with Trump.

A second Biden campaign does not sit well with most progressives, and not only because of his age. Critics of his foreign policy cite a list of mistakes: the embarrassing fist bump with Mohammed bin Salman, who repaid him by cutting oil production; the messy evacuation of Afghanistan; the failure to hold the Israeli government accountable for the army’s killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American journalist, let alone its policy of apartheid in Israel and the Occupied Territories. He has replaced Trump’s abandonment of human rights with a highly selective application that favours Ukrainians over Palestinians, Egyptians and Yemenis; along with his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, he has revived the language of Cold War Atlanticism, an anachronistic idiom in an era of American decline and Chinese ascendancy.

But while Biden has neither the elegance nor the eloquence of the president he served for eight years – he looks as if he’s been wearing the same blue blazer for the last half-century and invariably fumbles in his speeches – he is more focused than Obama on getting things done. He has allowed himself to be pulled towards the left, especially on domestic policy. He appointed a pro-worker National Labour Relations Board, as well as a progressive chair of the Federal Trade Commission, Lina Khan, and has raised taxes on corporations through the Inflation Reduction Act. He passed the most important climate change legislation in US history, and was the only leader from one of the three biggest polluting countries – India and China are the others – to address COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, where he apologised for the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, and promised to lower methane emissions by 87 per cent from 2005 levels. He has strengthened Ukraine’s defences while at the same time working to prevent nuclear escalation. To his credit, he has refused to be drawn into America’s increasingly acrimonious culture wars, and affirmed his administration’s commitment to the rights of people of colour and sexual minorities.

It’s unlikely that Trump could beat Biden. What about DeSantis? Republican leaders clearly hope that he can be groomed into a slicker, less manic alternative to Trump. But DeSantis has plenty of time (he’s only 44) and might decide to wait it out. Even if he ends up running, it’s not clear that he could defeat Trump in the primaries. This is what Biden and his advisers are counting on: a grinding and volatile battle with a weakened Trump and his increasingly unhinged movement in 2024.

There is also the matter of Trump’s followers in the House, the Taliban wing of the Republican Party. Although the Republicans achieved only a very narrow majority, the Trumpists in Congress feel emboldened by victory, and are already throwing up challengers to Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Speaker of the House. While McCarthy in the House and Mitch McConnell in the Senate might like nothing better than to dissociate themselves from Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz and other ultras are sure to conduct Trumpian ‘investigations’ of Hunter Biden and America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, and will perhaps even try to impeach Biden himself. They will attempt to undermine Biden’s efforts to lower healthcare costs, and to increase ‘parental control’ over schools: that is, to prevent the teaching of critical race theory so that future generations of white children never have to suffer the knowledge of their country’s crimes against black people and Native Americans. And they will do their best to ‘liberate’ 6 January insurrectionists from prison.

These politicians are my fellow citizens, but they see people like me as the enemy, and, for most of us in blue America, the feeling is mutual. The politics of fear has dominated American politics from the Cold War to the ‘War on Terror’. But the fear is no longer directed at an external enemy. ‘Tell me who your enemy is,’ the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt wrote, ‘and I will tell you who you are.’ In the United States, for the foreseeable future, electoral politics will be a continuation of war by other means.

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Vol. 45 No. 2 · 19 January 2023

Adam Shatz, writing about November’s US midterm elections, remarks that ‘the polls, unreliable as ever (this was one thing Trump got right), told us that high inflation and anxiety about crime were going to provoke a Republican tsunami’ (LRB, 1 December). Actually, the polls in 2022 were accurate and did not predict a ‘red wave’ of any kind. For example, the Economist’s poll-based forecast predicted a possible range for the Republicans of 46 to 55 seats in the Senate and 208-244 in the House of Representatives, with average forecasts of 50.8 and 224.5; in other words, near ties in both Houses of Congress. The Republicans ended up with 49 Senate seats and 222 in the House, well within the forecast ranges.

Journalists seem to have taken the lesson of 2016 and 2020 to be ‘don’t trust the polls,’ despite the evidence. In the 2016 primaries, the polls were right about Trump having a big lead over his opponents; it was the pundits who were wrong. In the general elections of 2016 and 2020, Trump managed something like two percentage points better than the polls predicted, which isn’t nothing, but it’s a sign of how well the polls have done historically that a two-percentage-point discrepancy was considered large.

Andrew Gelman
New York

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