IN the world Donald Trump has created for himself, all events are an endless parade with himself taking the salute. Predictably, he greeted his reverses in the mid-term elections by tweeting a gushing tribute from a political cheerleader: “Mr Trump has magic about him. This guy has magic coming out of his ears. The Republicans are unbelievably lucky to have him.”
But the magic has gone. Even he knows that he has just been beaten badly in elections which were largely a referendum on himself. Exit polls suggested that passing judgment on his performance was the biggest factor for two-thirds of voters. That is not unusual: most mid-term elections are a referendum on the incumbent administration (like British by-elections). But Trump’s defeat in the elections for the House of Representatives is in many ways unique.
Congressional districts are frequently gerrymandered (the term was invented in the early United States) and recently Republicans have had more opportunity to achieve this than Democrats. The new Democratic majority therefore understates the party’s success in the popular vote by around eight per cent.
The conventional wisdom is that American electors are swayed by the economy. Trump’s presidency has seen the longest economic expansion in recent American history – but he has derived no political benefit. Two years into his presidency, he is less popular with American unemployment at 3.7 per cent than President Barack Obama at the same point in 2010 when unemployment was 9.8 per cent.
Trump has failed completely to realign American politics, in the way that FD Roosevelt achieved when he built the Democratic party into a mighty coalition of interests, and Richard Nixon achieved (before Watergate) when he recruited his “silent majority” of white working-class voters. Quite the opposite: Trump has united key groups of voters against him.
In 2016, Trump held a slight lead among white women voters (despite the exposure of his offensive sexist remarks). Recent election polls suggest that his party now trails among all women voters by a thumping 19 per cent: such a shift could happen only with a massive defection of white women voters. They also suggest that the Republicans are clinging to a thin lead in voters over 50 – but trail among younger voters, and the younger voters are the worse they perform. Demographically, Trump is taking his party to oblivion.
Worse still for Trump and his party, their opponents got involved in the political process on an unprecedented scale. Voter turnout will be a modern record for a mid-term Congressional elections. Young anti-Trump voters were especially eager to take part: their turnout increased in at least 12 states and doubled in Texas, New Jersey and Georgia, all key battlegrounds for 2020.
The Democrats also benefited from a massive rise in individual donations to their Congressional candidates while women took part as candidates on an unprecedented scale.
There are a few consolations for Trump. He has hailed his party’s gains in the Senate, but these were always likely. The Senate races this year were generally in unpromising Democratic states, where the party was defending results gained in the tide of Obama’s second election victory in 2012. Better news for Trump was that his party clung to the governorships of Florida, Georgia and Ohio, and with it control of voter registration.
Importantly, the elections produced no Democrat winner who looks like a serious Presidential contender. But the charismatic populist Beto O’Rourke, who almost seized Texas from the powerful Republican Ted Cruz, could find it easier to build a national profile outside the Senate than as a minority freshman inside it.
The new House Democrats were elected to thwart Trump, and they have no reason to take a bipartisan approach even if Trump, most improbably, tries to conciliate them.
The new House can of course stymie any intended legislation by Trump which looks remotely popular. That would make him turn to the areas where he can act without it: packing the Federal judges’ bench, more belligerent gestures in defence, foreign policy and trade. There is some potential good news for Theresa May – Trump may be more eager for a post-Brexit trade deal. The bad news is that it would have to be a total victory for Trump.
Impeachment apart, it would be wrong to rule out Trump’s re-election in 2020. He may, like several predecessors, notably Harry Truman, be able to mobilise public opinion against an obstructive, “do-nothing” Congress. But the mid-term results suggest strongly that he cannot win by his usual formula of trying to make voters act on hatred.
In short, the American people have asked for a new and better President.
Richard Heller was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. He was born in the United States and has reported five Presidential elections.