interesting times

America’s Fever Is Still Rising

Advantage Trump. Photo: Calla Kessler/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tuesday, if you step back, was an ordinary election in an extraordinary time. The swing against the president’s party in the first midterm election was not far off the historical range. The average loss for the president’s party in the House two years into a first term over the last century is 29. Trump’s GOP, at last estimate, lost 37. For some recent perspective: In 1982, Reagan’s GOP lost 26 seats; in 1990, George H.W. Bush’s GOP lost 8; in 1994, Clinton’s Democrats lost 54; in 2002, W.’s GOP gained 8 (but in the context of 9/11); in 2010, Obama’s Democrats lost a devastating 63 seats. In terms of the popular vote in the House, the Dems’ share — 51.7 percent — is also very close to the norm for the opposition in a first-term midterm.

There was, in other words, no blue wave. It was rather a familiar blue tide (which nonetheless looked more impressive by Thursday night than it did in the wee hours of Wednesday morning). If you just looked at the data, and knew nothing about the last two years, you’d think it was a conventional, even boring, election.

I wrote last week that the midterms would finally tell us what this country now is. And with a remarkable turnout — a 50-year high for a non-presidential election, no less — we did indeed learn something solid and eye-opening. We learned that the American public as a whole has reacted to the first two years of an unfit, delusional, mendacious, malevolent, incompetent authoritarian as president … with relative equanimity. The net backlash is milder than it was against Clinton or Obama (and both of them went on to win reelection).

The Senate results for the Democrats were modest although they improved a bit as all the votes were counted in Florida and Arizona. Yes, it was a forbidding map, and keeping the GOP tally to what might be 52 or 53 (if Democrats prevail in both or one of the contests that remain in limbo) is not too shabby. 2020 will be easier for the Dems — but not by much, given the way the rural-urban split now operates. The very nature of that split gives the GOP a real edge in the Senate, where relatively lower-population and whiter states have structurally more clout. That, in turn, could have a huge impact on the judiciary, especially now that the judicial filibuster is pining for the fjords, and Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are ensconced. At the rate the GOP is going — and they have close to no legislative agenda apart from judges — the third branch of government may soon be indistinguishable from the annual meeting of the Federalist Society. (Though it’s worth noting that Democrats do have some control over the situation: The further left they move on cultural issues and the more comfortable they appear to be with media rhetoric that condescends about “white people,” and particularly “white men,” the more likely it is that the Senate remains lost to them for the indefinite future.)

The Senate and House GOP, like the courts, will also be Trumpier in the future. The congressional Republican dissidents have been winnowed, the best are dead, and the rest, having whiffed when they had actual power, are looking for work. The newbies have generally demonstrated the necessary fealty to the cult leader; and, for good measure, in that ghastly Wednesday press conference, Trump named and shamed those few Republicans who tried to steer clear of him in the campaign and lost. I can’t think of a swifter or more complete takeover of a political party in recent times. It took 16 years for Goldwater’s vision to be actualized by Reagan. It took only two years for Trump to turn the entire GOP into a nationalist cult. And it’s taken root. Whatever way you look at it, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Trump’s strategic instincts may have been vindicated — if one discounts any question of decency or ethics — in choosing to run on an anti-immigrant election message, including the infamous closing ad. If he had run on the economy, I doubt his base would have shown up the way they did. The rural first-time voters who came out of the woodwork and surprised everyone two years ago showed up again, and that made the difference.

After all, in many ways, the Democrats played this election right. They selected good candidates; they focused on their most potent issue — health care; they allowed far-left and centrist candidates to run with different emphases. What made this election a disappointment for them was that the president’s party — traditionally more complacent and disengaged in a first midterm — voted just as fervently (hence the record turnout). Fear worked like a charm. It usually does.

What I take from this is that Trump really does have a cultlike grip on a whole new population of voters, as well as the reliable Republican voters of the past. That’s not just 42 percent of the country (to use Trump’s approval rating); it’s a motivated 42 percent. And what Trump has successfully done, by corralling right-wing media, tweeting incessantly, dominating the discourse, tending so diligently to his base, and holding rally after rally, is keep that engagement going. Most presidents are interested in governing and sometimes take their eye off the ball politically. Trump is all politics and all salesmanship all the time. And it works. If he can demonstrate this in the midterms, imagine what his reelection campaign will be like.

So where does this point us? To nowhere good, I’m afraid. The trouble with a normal election cycle in 2018 is that we do not have a normal president in 2018. We have a deranged, fabulist bully. For a presidency like Trump’s to generate less opposition after two years than Clinton’s or Obama’s is a rather chilling sign of how far down the rabbit hole we have already gone. To greet what is an emergency for liberal democracy as a business-as-usual political cycle, is de facto a big win for the whole idea of strongman rule. And on the key issues of a free press and the rule of law, the strongman is winning.

Confidence in the mainstream media — not great to start with — has tumbled even further in the last couple of years, as the very concept of a common set of facts has been corroded. Trump aids and abets this the way all authoritarians do — because he simply cannot handle a different picture of the world than his deranged psyche has managed to twist into existence. But the result is a weakening of our common discourse, which means that politics becomes much more about emotion than reason, about tribal reality than any lingering notion of objectivity. In that atmosphere, bullies and liars will tend to win. And the press itself will respond in defensive ways that actually make it more vulnerable to the charge of subjectivity and bias.

The Kavanaugh hearings were a disaster in terms of encouraging that perception of bias. The coverage was ludicrously tilted against Kavanaugh, and along urban, left-feminist lines. Reporters like Jim Acosta don’t help either. I’m a First Amendment fanatic, but Acosta’s self-regard appears to be fathomless. He and Trump almost need each other to sustain a mutual narcissism. I’ve also been a little shocked, to tell the truth, by the way CNN has moved in just a couple of years into MSNBC territory. The surrender of mainstream newsrooms and magazines to the social-justice cult has also hurt their credibility with readers who are looking for insight rather than ideology. All of this makes it easy for partisans to ignore or dismiss all the excellent journalism being done by mainstream outlets. Trump’s entire business career was brutally exposed by the New York Times, for example, a month before the election and it mattered not a jot.

It also seems evident that Trump has little to fear from Mueller. One small nugget from the exit polls that hasn’t been adequately noted: Americans believe that the Mueller investigation is politically motivated by a 54–41 percent margin, and they disapprove of Mueller’s handling of the inquiry by 46–41 percent. Since Mueller was appointed by a Republican-led DOJ, is himself a lifelong Republican, and, by almost everyone’s account, has behaved impeccably, this is grim news. At this point, I don’t think it matters what Mueller finds. I can’t imagine any revelation that could seriously damage Trump.

It’s also perfectly clear to me that Trump is prepared to turn the Department of Justice into his own investigative tool, and has already instructed a loyalist, Matt Whitaker, to undermine (if not cripple) the Mueller inquiry. I expect Whitaker to spend the next 12 months purging the DOJ of anyone not willing to pledge fealty. And if Trump is subpoenaed, Kavanaugh is the backstop. Kavanaugh seems to have been specifically selected to get the president off the hook, if the case goes all the way to SCOTUS. Maybe John Roberts will save the day — and what’s left of the court’s nonpartisan reputation — but I wouldn’t bet on it. And I can’t imagine the experience of the recent hearings will have mellowed Kavanaugh’s naked partisanship and deference to the Executive branch.

On the question of Whitaker, I’m with Jonathan Chait. It’s a big deal. Firing Sessions and replacing him the day after the election is an aggressive, shameless move by a president who clearly doesn’t intend to be subjected to the rule of law, if he can help it. And the GOP-led Senate is clearly not going to stand in his way (which makes impeachment a very dicey proposition for the House). If this had happened a year ago, the streets would be filled with protestors. Now, not so much. And when a president can flout these crucial norms, and can rely on the courts to back him up and a Senate to cover for him, it’s a bona fide slow-moving constitutional crisis. Its new phase started Wednesday. And we have no idea how it will end.

Am I being hysterical? Maybe. It wouldn’t be the first time — although my worry about the fragility of liberal democracy in early 2016 doesn’t look so nutty today. So let me run through the counterarguments to the idea that these elections helped Trump more than hurt him. First off: the strong economy. In that context, wasn’t Trump’s performance poor? Reagan, Clinton, and Obama, after all, were all crawling out of recessions in their first midterms, Obama a massive one. Trump inherited a boom, and boosted it by borrowing a trillion. Yes, you’d be crazy not to factor that in. I’m sure it helped. But the top two issues in the exit polls were healthcare and immigration, not the economy.

Yes, a Democratic House is a big win, whatever the size of the majority. Without it, we’d be in a much more acute crisis. In that sense, the system did work, and the election helped. Subpoenas can now be deployed; documents revealed; Cabinet members grilled; corruption exposed. That matters a huge amount. But when Trump dismisses all of it as obstructionism? When he refuses subpoenas? When he launches DOJ investigations into those Dems challenging him? When he uses House Democrats as foils in a new reality show designed for Twitter? This is not a president willing to go along with real scrutiny. And because Trump has no concern for the system as a whole, because he is incapable of self-restraint, because he has no understanding of justice as something that doesn’t reflect his own personal interests, he’ll go full Roy Cohn on his political opponents. And we know that his propaganda channel will serve all this up on a hot plate for the base’s consumption. And if he needs to, he can rally support across the country with cheering, chanting crowds from stadium to stadium.

I’ve been razzed a little for using the term “existential threat” to describe Trump two and a half years ago. But I used it in a specific context: He was and remains such a threat to liberal democracy. Not democracy as a whole. Strongmen can win election after election with big majorities without rigging the vote. A single political party can co-opt the judiciary, or capture the Senate, by democratic means, for illiberal ends.

I mean by liberal democracy one in which pluralism is celebrated, power is widely distributed, justice is dispensed without regard to politics, the press is free and respected, minorities protected, and where an opposition has a chance to win real, governing power. The space for this in America has significantly shrunk these past two years and this election has only consolidated that new status quo. In a textbook case of authoritarian creep, Trump will now further marginalize the press, rid his Cabinet of anyone not wedded to him entirely (bye-bye, General Mattis and Jeff Sessions), quash or marginalize any independent investigation into his campaign, politicize the Justice Department, and launch new inquiries against his opponents.

The fever hasn’t broken. It’s still rising. And, after this election, it’s going to rise some more.

Demography Is Not Destiny

A word about the midterms, women and minorities. There was a big gender gap. Men backed the GOP 51–47. Women backed the Dems by 59–40. At first blush, this seems an impressive result for a year in which the gender question, in the wake of #MeToo, was very much in the news. But it’s a little different when you also factor in race. Minority women, as in 2016, were overwhelmingly Democratic: 92 percent of black women and 73 percent of Latina women voted for the Democrats. But white women were divided right down the middle: 49–49. More to the point, minority women were not that different in their votes than minority men: 88 percent of black men and 63 percent of Latino men backed the Democrats as well. Yes, a gender gap remains, but with racial minorities, it matters much less.

The only point I’d want to make from this is that white women as a political class are very heterogeneous, and as deeply divided as the whole country, and this important truth is utterly at odds with the narrative driven by the national media. The Kavanaugh hearings did not only unleash a wave of white women identifying with Christine Blasey Ford, it empowered another wave of white women to back Kavanaugh. And the way in which social-justice ideology construes gender as implying a monolithic political position is at odds with, well, reality.

There’s also a new and interesting study of 3,000 women from June of this year that sheds more light on this. It looked at partisanship and gender and came to a striking conclusion: a greater emphasis on gender and gender solidarity actually increases partisanship and polarization. From the abstract: “Social psychological work suggests that common in-group identities unite competing factions. After closely examining the conditions upon which the common in-group identity model depends, I argue that opposing partisans who share the superordinate identity of being a woman will not reduce their intergroup biases. Instead, I predict that raising the salience of their gender will increase cross-party biases.” Make women feel they have to vote one way because they are women, and they actually get more partisan, not less. That’s maybe why a black man did better with white female voters than a white female presidential candidate.

One more thing: The exit polls say that 29 percent of Latinos voted for the Republicans. That is no different than the 28 percent who voted for Trump in 2016 or the 27 percent who voted for Romney in 2012. Thirty-four percent of Latino men voted Republican this time around. Now think of how Trump campaigned in the last month. And consider: It made no difference to his Latino support. Could it be that the demographic model that Latinos will be part of a Democratic demographic majority is a little off?

More to the point: Is favoring mass immigration a position that really moves Latino votes? It doesn’t necessarily seem so. It may be that legal Latino immigrants — Latino voters, in other words — are not necessarily hostile to much stronger border enforcement. It may even that recently naturalized Latino immigrants are actually more hostile to the next wave of illegal immigrants than white liberals — because they took the trouble to get through the grueling legal process, and have more at stake facing competition in the labor force from the new arrivals.

I don’t want to overdo this. A big majority of Latinos still vote for the Dems. And a gender gap of 24 percent is big. But assuming a particular politics from a particular minority group or an entire gender is often a very crude — or even misleading — way of understanding our politics.

Americans With No Vote at All

So I did my duty, just so you know. I registered online in time, which isn’t like me, and got my voter-registration card in the mail last week. I haven’t voted in any election anywhere since 1983, when I cast a ballot to reelect Margaret Thatcher in Oxford, England. So it was with some excitement that I made my way to a local school with my passport and registration card, only to find that those two items were not enough. I was told I needed a driver’s license for D.C. which was a bit of a reach since I don’t drive. After a little wrangling, they nonetheless let me vote, which, well, I have to confess, was a little underwhelming. D.C. is not exactly competitive to say the least. I registered as an Independent but voted Democrat down the ticket because I wanted to send a national message and because they were all going to win anwyay. It felt good. Better than simply blogging about it, anyway.

It was only leaving the place and plonking that sticker on my jacket that it sunk in that, in fact, I hadn’t sent a national message, because, living in D.C. I couldn’t send a message — although I suppose my lone ballot might have added to the national popular-vote numbers. There was, after all, no member of Congress on the ballot and no senator. I understand the frustration that comes with the structure of the Senate if you vote in a big coastal city. Your urban vote counts much less than a rural one. But at least you actually have a vote in Congress. If you live in the capital city, you’re out of luck.

This is insane. I’ve written about this before as an abstract matter. But actually voting really brings it home. North Dakota has one congressman and two senators for 755,000 citizens. The District of Columbia has 694,000 citizens and no members of Congress or senators. I know why, of course. And I also know why we can’t seem to change it, despite the obvious scandal of taxation without representation. It’s not a constitutionally controversial issue, but pure partisanship. D.C. would add to the Democrats’ tally in the House and Senate, and very few Republicans will support that. But it’s still outrageous. Can you imagine if, say, Westminster in London had no member of Parliament, or central Paris was taken off the electoral map in France? I’ve tried to explain it to visitors from abroad before but they can barely believe it.

We lost thousands of soldiers to bring democracy to Baghdad. It would cost nothing to bring it to America itself. And yet this former colony had a revolution to establish a colony among its own people. Among all the glaring contradictions of the American experiment, this has to be one of the most perverse.

See you next Friday.

Andrew Sullivan: America’s Fever Is Still Rising