Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, the results and implications of the 2018 midterm elections.
In the run-up to yesterday’s election, amid an escalation in political and ethnic violence, Donald Trump and the Republican Party sent voters to the polls with a message of fear and racial resentment. Will anything that happened yesterday make the party rethink that strategy?
Trump is the Republican Party. Most of the few remaining feckless, and, frankly, worthless “moderate” Republicans in the House were wiped out yesterday even as a quasi–Nazi sympathizer like Steve King won reelection in Iowa. So the notion that “the party” might rethink anything is a non sequitur. The only question is whether Trump would rethink anything, and the answer is a resounding no. His entire political program is white male nationalism, with a full arsenal of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and homophobia that he wields with both glee and malice for his own political (and often financial) profit. I doubt that he would change course even if there had been a two-chamber blue wave in the midterms. He certainly won’t change it now. As his morning-after tweetfest predictably reveals, he thinks he won. He is plotting more MAGA rallies for the start of the year. More immigrant caravans will soon be wall-to-wall on Fox. The moment presumptive Democratic House committee chairmen like Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler start wielding gavels, we will be hearing about how they are in the pay of George Soros and other shadowy “globalists.”
Despite the somewhat murky purplish hue of the midterm results, this was a clarifying election, confirming and solidifying the two Americas that Trump’s 2016 victory brought to the surface. One of them is predominantly old, white, male, rural, and what Trump himself calls “the poorly educated.” Though it is not exclusively that — his coalition also includes billionaires who directly profit from Trump’s generous tax and anti-regulatory handouts to America’s top one percent. (Not for nothing was Stephen Schwarzman, the New York billionaire whose name is plastered all over the New York Public Library, at the White House watching the returns with the president last night.) What we know about the Trump GOP from both 2016 and 2018 is that it is not large enough to win the national popular vote, but it is large enough to eke out victory in the Electoral College and win Senate races in the former Confederacy as well as rural states west of the Mississippi. The second America, which is synonymous with the Democratic Party, is self-evidently younger and more diverse. But as we learned in this election, its coalition of liberal whites and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities is getting younger and more diverse even as it is joined by formerly Republican women. Trump’s unapologetic misogyny has driven suburban women out of the GOP much as Richard Nixon’s racist “Southern strategy” pushed blacks out of the party a half-century ago.
Demographic change is on the Democrats’ side in the longer term. But meanwhile the country continues to have a fight for its very identity on its hands. The 2018 midterms were merely a battle in what looks like an extended trench war. The next battle? It’s only a matter of time before Trump fully mobilizes his base, complete with its retinue of gun-toting alt-right vigilantes, to augment whatever extralegal tactics he chooses to fight back against the reckoning of the Mueller investigation. For all the inevitable talk about 2020 today, it is the Mueller D-Day that will come first and likely be the most decisive factor in the fate of the Trump presidency.
Now that the Democrats control the House, they have the opportunity to subject Trump and his Cabinet to actual congressional scrutiny. Can they hold Trump accountable?
Probably not, but they can make life very difficult for him, his kleptocratic family members, and a Cabinet so patently corrupt that it makes Warren Harding’s Teapot Dome gang look like a model of good governance. The overdue scrutiny will be showcased in hearings that will, for the most part, be run by smart and circumspect chairmen like Schiff, Nadler, and Elijah Cummings, among others, who will presumably be guided by the similarly canny Nancy Pelosi. These Democratic leaders understand that a successful impeachment trial is a nonstarter in a Republican Senate, and that the way to go is not to indulge in pointless grandstanding but to conduct targeted, professional, and forensic investigations of individual crimes. There’s enough illegality visible even at the surface of this White House that this mission will be a full-time job commandeering enough made-for-TV fireworks for another Dick Wolf Law & Order spinoff.
That said, the most important by-product of Democratic control of the House by far is that Robert Mueller is now protected. Had the GOP held on, Mueller would have been fired along with Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, and his report would have been buried in a black hole. Now the Democrats can subpoena Mueller’s findings, protect them, and disseminate them. To me, as for so many others, this is far and away the most important result of yesterday’s vote.
Despite their success in the House, Democrats’ high-profile contests brought very mixed results. What can they learn from 2018?
Let’s face it: Many liberals, including me, entertained at least for one giddy hour or so the wet dream that Beto would by some miracle win in Texas, and that states in the Deep and less-Deep South like Georgia and Florida would elect their first African-American governors in the sterling form of Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum. All three of these rising stars are young and have brilliant futures, and all of them demonstrated that progressive candidacies can pile up near-majority votes in large red and purple states. That said, they lost (or in Abrams’s case, appear to). The smart thing for the party to do now would be to acknowledge reality, put away the pipe dreams, and recognize that in defeat none of them is in a position to lead a national ticket in 2020.
Another big takeaway from 2018 for Democrats, and not a new one, is that fielding fresh and diverse candidates can be an increasingly winning hand in almost all sections of America — but only if voting rights are protected for all. That is a big if. The effort to suppress minority voting from the John Roberts Supreme Court and Trump White House on down to the state and local level is as grave a threat to democracy as Trump. Gratifying as it is that the architect of the White House’s failed crackdown on nonexistent voter fraud, Kris Kobach, lost his race to be governor of Kansas, the unabashed efforts of Abrams’s opponent, the Georgia secretary of State Brian Kemp, to disenfranchise African-Americans turns the clock back to the heyday of Jim Crow. If Kemp occupies the governor’s mansion after these tactics, I seriously question whether major American corporations, including those in the entertainment industry, should continue to pump dollars into the state’s economy. What Kemp did was the high-tech equivalent of Bull Connor using police dogs to attack civil-rights activists in the Birmingham, Alabama, of the 1960s.
My only other advice for the Democrats would be to throw a retirement party for the Clintons once they conclude the upcoming buck-raking speaking tour they, for no good reason, decided to announce during the final lap of the 2018 campaign. Truly, it is past time to move on.