The US is not Hungary

David Runciman on the Midterms

Many political scientists were utterly confounded when Trump won the presidency in 2016. A large number had staked their professional reputations on confident predictions that Hillary Clinton would brush him aside. But when the result came in those same political scientists were kicking themselves for not having seen it coming. What happened turned out to fit pretty well with the outcome their models might have predicted. It was always going to be hard for an insider to succeed at the end of a two-term Democratic administration. The Electoral College gave certain in-built advantages to a Republican who was able to pick up votes in the right places. The state of the economy – neither hot nor cold but somewhere in between – meant it was going be close. Trump did about as well as a regular Republican candidate could be expected to do. What was astonishing – and what most political scientists failed to consider – was that Trump in all his outrageousness might perform just like a regular Republican candidate.

This is what Trump does to us: he makes it so hard to know what still counts as routine. Those confounding qualities have now been compounded by the midterms. The losses his party suffered in the House were bang in line with what might be expected for any first-term president. With only a couple of exceptions, all modern presidents have taken a minor or major beating in the middle of their first term. (The two outliers – FDR and George W. Bush – bucked the trend under the exceptional circumstances of depression and war.) Trump did somewhat better than Truman, Johnson, Clinton and Obama and slightly worse than Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Losing 35 seats (that’s the number as I write; it may go one or two higher) puts him right in the middle of the range. He did much better than most of his predecessors in the Senate, but that was in large part because the electoral map favoured him, as it did in 2016. Many things about the campaign were extraordinary – the Kavanaugh hearings, the supercharged rhetoric on both sides, the acts of violence that punctuated it, the enthusiasm of both bases at the end, as reflected in the high turnout – yet the outcome was nothing remarkable. So we face the same question. Does this election help normalise the Trump presidency or has this president Trumpified electoral normality?

A lot depends on whether we look to the man or the institutions for an answer. In temperamental terms, all Trump’s instincts point towards the second option. He will treat a partial and messy outcome as a complete personal vindication. It helps that some of the most notable successes were achieved by very Trumpian candidates (Marsha Blackburn, Ron DeSantis) and that Republicans did well in many of the places where the president stumped hardest (Indiana, Florida). He remains an effective campaigner: indefatigable, unembarrassable, utterly merciless in his eye for the main chance. This did him little good in the House, but a narcissist like Trump will not conclude that there was therefore something wrong with his campaign. Rather he will decide there is something wrong with that branch of American democracy. In his eyes the bits of the system that don’t recognise his appeal are the bits that don’t work. Over the next couple of years we can expect to hear as much about the ‘failing’ Congress as we have heard over the previous couple about the ‘failing’ New York Times.

But Trump doesn’t get to decide this by himself. The US is not Hungary. Its institutions, from its press to its legislature, have shown themselves relatively resistant to capture by an overbearing executive. If Trump’s response to this relatively mild rebuke from the voters is to ratchet up his authoritarian tendencies, he can expect anything-but-mild pushback from their representatives. Democrats in control of the House and its oversight committees now have the tools to make the president’s life increasingly difficult. He should expect them to be used.

In reality, Trump did best in the parts of the system that work worst. There were three kinds of election on 6 November: a popular plebiscite, which the Democrats won comfortably, as they invariably do these days (they won by more than 7 per cent of the nationwide vote: in 2016 Clinton beat Trump in the popular vote by a margin of 2.8 million votes); state-level elections, which favoured the Republicans in the Senate but gave the Democrats some significant scalps in gubernatorial races; and the district-by-district contests for the House, where the Democrats made gains across the country. What success Trump achieved was a result of a) so much gerrymandering of congressional districts by previous Republican state administrations that his trouncing in the popular vote was not reflected in the final result; and b) the fact that the Senate gives outsize influence to relatively unpopulous states. Democracy in America favours the Democrats. So Republicans can be grateful that it is still a republic.

The split result has effectively given each of the two parties a different constitutional stick with which to beat the other. Democrats get to focus on process. The House can harry Trump with demands for more and more information about his doings – his taxes, his businesses, his Russian contacts, his working habits, his family ties and anything and everything else they can think of (or that Mueller thinks of for them). The Republicans, through the Senate, get to focus on people. Trump can continue to populate the bench with conservative judges – including, quite possibly, another Supreme Court justice – and to deprive the regulatory branches of government of personnel altogether, by leaving vacancies unfilled. It is control of the evidence v. control of the appointments. The former is probably more useful for winning the battles of the next couple of years, but the latter may still be the key to winning the war. Long after Trump is gone, even if driven out by his opponents, his legacy of nominations will haunt the American state like a malign ghost.

That said, many Democrats appear to believe the future is now on their side. As well as beginning the long grind of rescuing state governments from Republican control after the catastrophic losses of the Obama years, there were other notable successes in reversing some deeply anti-democratic initiatives. In a Florida-wide plebiscite on Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote to anyone convicted of a felony, the same electorate that gave Florida’s senior offices to the Republicans also restored the franchise to its felons by a margin of 60 to 40. In 2020, 1.4 million previously disenfranchised Floridians will get a say, including nearly 20 per cent of the total African American electorate in the state. It won’t be so easy for the Republicans to hold on to those offices next time round.

In Texas, Beto O’Rourke came within three points of capturing Ted Cruz’s state Senate seat. The excitement generated by his campaign may have made this loss seem like a heavy blow to his supporters, but he did remarkably well to get so close. His strategy, which was to concentrate on turning out ‘natural’ Democrats – the young, the college-educated, the metropolitan, the non-white – in sufficient numbers to overwhelm his opponent, was probably always destined to come up short against a well-oiled Republican machine. But demographic destiny appears to favour the Democrats in the South. The young will age without necessarily changing their more liberal attitudes. The white majority will progressively shrink. The cities will continue to swallow up the countryside. It is only a matter of time.

Yet there lies the trap that Trump has set. Democrats are waiting for the future. In the meantime, Trump defines it. Ask yourself this: can you imagine what the world will be like in ten or 15 years’ time if the president’s agenda remains in force? It isn’t hard, though it isn’t pretty either. It would be more protectionist but less regulated, more nationalist but less collaborative; work would be plentiful but much more precarious, public discourse coarser and a lot more violent; international institutions weaker and international relations on a knife-edge; the political landscape of America would be fractured as states got to do their own thing (including on abortion). What, though, would a world run by Democrats be like? I can offer some generalities: more civil, maybe, or at least more insistent on certain civilities; more tolerant, perhaps (or perhaps not); more concerned with justice; more environmentally friendly; better, somehow. But it’s fuzzy, where Trump’s world is in focus. And in politics, something still beats nothing.

The problem for US Democrats, and more generally for social democrats around the globe, is that at a time of rapid and alarming change they don’t have as sharp a vision of the future as the people who want to go back to an imagined past. The centre-left can provide better policy prescriptions, but policy is never enough to produce a clear picture of politics. All the vivid images are coming from the populist fringes. Promising a world without Trump is the best the Democrats have to offer. They are the anti-matter to Trump’s matter.

Whether Trump has been normalised or normality has been Trumpified, the prognosis looks the same. Presidents who lose their first midterms tend to go on to win a second term. It happened to Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and Obama. Truman and Johnson didn’t try. Kennedy didn’t get the chance. Only Carter and George H.W. Bush failed. Incumbents still have huge advantages under the American system, because the opposition doesn’t get a leader to set its presidential agenda until very late in the day. That’s why it is so hard to defeat a party after one term in the White House but relatively easy after two, when the playing field has been levelled again. Trump could still destroy himself by some act of hubris. A severe economic downturn could yet wreck his chances of re-election. But we are left waiting on his next move. As I write this, he just fired Jeff Sessions.